Many people aspire to receive a master’s degree. For three Branson nurses, they are doing just that, together, despite challenges and losses along the way.
“We’ve really had to rely on each other,” said Martha Whitson, who is an RN at CoxHealth’s Cardiac and Pulmonary Rehab Center in Branson.
Whitson has been working in Cardiac and Pulmonary Rehab for the past 22 years and in December she completed her master’s in nursing. In May of this year, her co-worker Hollie Holderfield completed her master’s in nursing. Not far behind is Wendy Michel who is less than a year out from completing her master’s in leadership and management degree.
“When I originally went back to school, I started with the bachelor’s program because CoxHealth offered tuition reimbursement,” Whitson said.
Before the tuition reimbursement was available, she said the program was cost prohibitive. Scholarships from Skaggs Foundation also helped alleviate the financial strain. While the foundation helped with funding, the co-workers leaned on each other for support and encouragement.
“I graduated with my bachelor’s degree and a week later my husband passed,” Whitson said. “My work family got me through the last three years. I needed them for emotional support and school helped distract me.”
Holderfield, the nurse manager at Cardiac and Pulmonary rehab, worked on her bachelor’s degree with Whitson. Before she and Whitson completed that program they made the decision to continue their education.
“We both felt like we weren’t done,” Holderfield said. “Learning is something you always need to do and I want to continue to grow my knowledge.”
Like Whitson, Holderfield’s journey wasn’t without devastation.
In September 2018, Holderfield’s husband Marc was diagnosed with glioblastoma, an aggressive form of brain cancer. When her husband’s illness worsened, Hollie Holderfield took a leave of absence from school to focus on her husband’s care.
“He supported me through the entire thing,” Hollie Holderfield said. “I was grateful for the support I had from my co-workers, not only through my schooling but through his illness.”
Marc Holderfield passed in October of 2019. A few months later, Hollie Holderfield returned to class to complete the degree she started working on four years before.
She said having someone to lean on was vital to her success in the classroom.
“We’d lean on each other’s strengths and weaknesses and we supported each other,” Holderfield said. “We made a good team.”
Now that Holderfield has completed her master’s degree, her patients will be happy to hear she has no plans to leave the rehab center.
“I love where I’m at and I love my patients and I love my staff,” she said. “I feel this is where I need to be.”
Michel is set to complete her master’s degree next spring, yet, she actually was the first of the three to begin making plans to go back to school.
As Michel was about to start classes, her husband suffered a heart attack, putting the skids on everything. And while her husband’s heart attack may have slowed down her progress, she continues to focus on her dreams.
“Next year, I’ll have been a nurse for 40 years,” she said. “You are never too old to keep learning. It’s really baby steps. One foot in front of the other, that’s how you get to where you need to go.”
Through it all, Michel, Whitson and Holderfield have had each other to lean on, and the financial support of Skaggs Foundation. Michel, Whitson and Holderfield each received numerous scholarships throughout their years in school.
“It was great getting the help from Skaggs Foundation,” Whitson said. “It was a huge help.”
“My husband is now retired and so it takes some of that financial strain off my family,” Michel added. “It has been a blessing.”
Since inception in 2002, Skaggs Foundation has awarded $419,450 in scholarships to students pursuing or advancing careers in healthcare. In 2020, 47 scholarships were awarded for a total of $35,000. Scholarship funds are made available annually from interest earned from two permanently restricted scholarship endowments.
Learn more about Skaggs Foundation's scholarship program.