Sisters graduate holds hearts in her hand
Last updated 3/23/2021 at Noon
Ten years ago, McKenzie Cooper received her diploma from Sisters High School. As soon as she turned her tassel from right to left, she was focused on her dream to be a nurse.
That dream was sparked by her former high school health teacher Heather Johnson, whose curriculum explored various health occupations.
“Ms. Johnson was always encouraging, and such an amazing woman. She told us we could do whatever we wanted, and to go for it,” said Cooper from her home in Eugene.
Cooper did just that.
In her senior year, Cooper was able to set up clinical hours and do rotations through Kevin Cotner’s health class. After spending time with the EMT, she did hours at a sleep lab in Bend, and then shadowed an ICU nurse at St. Charles Medical Center.
“Those hours at St. Charles were super important. A nurse asked me to set up a ventilator for an intubated patient arriving from the ER. I couldn’t believe she was letting me set it up,” said Cooper.
In hindsight, Cooper knows nothing could go wrong, because the nurse was there to check everything.
“But the fact I could get my hands on equipment that was going to keep someone alive made me think… Wow! I thought doctors did this stuff,” she said.
Cooper soon realized it was nurses who were with the patients all day long.
“I have all respect for doctors but nurses are there 90 percent of the time,” she said. “I remember thinking, I have to do this.”
Another pivotal moment for Cooper came from a sad experience. In 2009, her classmate Stephen Connolly was in the hospital after a tragic accident.
“We all spent a lot of time there visiting. As solemn and awful as that was, I saw how amazing the nurses were with so many kids visiting. They were so kind and helpful. I saw the nurses making a huge difference in the experience — at least for us, who were so young, and had no idea what was going on. Nursing was a way to make a huge impact on so many lives in a way that was bigger than just me.”
Cooper knew she needed to attend a school with nursing prerequisites.
“Lane Community College had a good nursing program, so I applied and spent two years there,” she said. “They have a nursing advisor, and you get to see nursing students walking around in their cool little scrubs… and you’re like, that’s going to be me one day… but you have no idea what kind of pain you’re in for!”
To get more experience, Cooper did an internship as a Spanish translator with Volunteers in Medicine in Springfield.
“Speaking Spanish is very helpful in the healthcare industry,” she said. “It’s my dream to go to South America and do nursing down there. I took every Spanish class Lane offered. I’d always seen myself working in a hospital, but that internship made me think, when I get some experience, I could do volunteer work at clinics around the world.”
Cooper filled out applications for nursing school all over Oregon, and was grateful to get into Lane on her first try. Always pushing herself, Cooper wanted more experience, so she started working as an in-home caregiver, and at a memory care facility. It was one of the hardest things she’s ever done.
“Emotionally, it was the most exhausting job I’ve had,” she said. “I have so much respect for people who work in Alzheimer’s care. I was basically doing certified nurse assistant (CNA) work, which taught me a lot about bedside manner and care. There was a lot of on-the-job learning, which was beneficial once I graduated.”
Cooper can’t overstate one truth: Nursing school was a monster. She had no idea what lay ahead.
“You think once you’re accepted into nursing school, you’ve made it. But you haven’t. It’s a very humbling experience,” she said. “All my waking hours were spent studying. The professors pushed me to do better than I ever thought possible. There was always another obstacle to overcome. Graduating from nursing school seemed like this far-off goal, and then when it happened, it was the most incredible accomplishment. I could finally say, this is my job!”
Celebration of graduation included a pinning ceremony. Her family came on stage to give her a pin symbolizing switching her tassel.
“I had Mom and Dad up there,” she said. “Graduation was a group experience. It wasn’t just something I did, it was something I accomplished with my nursing cohorts. I remembered sitting in our little crappy apartment complex where my friend MJ and I lived, trying to take my mom’s blood pressure and not knowing what I was doing. But my mom and dad were so supportive.”
Cooper was hired at McKenzie-Willamette Medical Center in Springfield, where she did her nursing rotations.
It’s clear Cooper doesn’t shy away from challenges.
“I feel like my biggest nursing challenge is right now,” she said. “You go into nursing and know it’ll be difficult, but doing it during a pandemic is even more demanding.”
A year after starting her career, Cooper switched to a cardiac specialty.
“It was a good decision and I’ve fallen in love with it,” she said. “The things we get to see and do, and the patients I meet, are absolutely incredible. I never pictured myself in cardiac medicine. I thought I’d be an ER nurse, which is still a future goal of mine. For now I love being in the cardiac realm. There’s nothing like it.”
When Cooper moved into the cardiac department, the other nurses all had strong critical-care backgrounds.
“They’re all incredibly experienced. I’ve only been a nurse for three years. They say it takes about a year before you finally start to understand it. It’s very humbling and very hard. I have to remind myself, I’m doing the absolute best I can. I spend a lot of time outside work studying, watching videos, and picking the brains of more experienced people. It’s all to become the best nurse I can be,” Cooper said.
“I don’t think there will ever be a point when I won’t feel like I need to learn more and be better. I’m around people who’ve been in their careers for 20-plus years and they’re still doing that too. One of my nursing professors told us, you should always be a little bit on edge, because if you get too comfortable, you need to reevaluate what you’re doing. That’s when the danger happens.”
Like many professionals, Cooper struggles with finding a work/life balance.
“You’ve got to turn it off. You can’t drink from an empty cup,” she said. “That’s easier said than done. I fill my cup when I’m outside. My partner Zach and I have our 2-year-old heeler, Artie. Camping is a huge relief, so is hiking and rafting with my family. I love baking. I also spend down time reading, anything that’s low key. Being stuck inside all day can be tough on your mental health. I need the fresh air and trees to reset.”
So many moments stand out for Cooper:
“Any day we’re opening up an artery and I see blood flowing again is another moment I know we’ve added years to that person’s life.
I had a patient who needed open-heart surgery.
I took care of him doing pre-testing.
He was really scared.
I told him he was going to do great.
He took a liking to me, and a week later when he came back for his surgery, he asked for me.
He bought me a pair of fleece gloves because when he held my hand he noticed my hands were cold.
He held onto them longer because he wanted to warm them up… he had just received news that he needed open-heart surgery and I’m trying to comfort him, and he’s trying to comfort me.
Amidst all of that, he took the time to get me gloves.
We formed this wonderful bond and connection.
That was one of those moments where I thought, ‘I love my job.’”