SIOUX CITY | Evonne Blankers knows what it's like to be confined to a hospital bed.

The Sioux City woman, who works part-time in the rehabilitation unit at Mercy Medical Center -- Sioux City, battled both thyroid and breast cancer before becoming a nurse -- a big career change for Blankers, who originally double-majored in elementary education and K-12 vocal music.

"I don't think anybody's ever too old to try something new," the 57-year-old said as she sat cross-legged leaning into the arm of a brown leather sofa in her living room. Stacks of thick medical textbooks rested on a built-in shelf aside the mantel.

Blankers donned a cap and gown and a set of red cords on Saturday as she received her bachelor of science in nursing degree from Northwestern College in Orange City, Iowa, 35 years after she graduated the first time.

The first time

When Blankers entered Northwestern College in 1978, she was fresh out of high school. She picked the four-year, liberal arts college affiliated with the Reformed Church in America for a combination of reasons -- it was a Christian college, fairly close to home and known as a good teaching school.

On campus, Blankers enjoyed living in the dorms, forging friendships and taking group choir and band trips around the country to perform. She recalled her first graduation from Northwestern as a time of excitement and apprehension.

"I've got a degree and I have to go out and be an adult and work and find a job. Those are not my concerns now," she said with a slight smile. "It's more of a celebration of accomplishment."

After graduation, Blankers relocated to Sioux City where her husband, Gary, had a job working in the cardboard box industry. His support would be instrumental in helping Blankers during her second stint at Northwestern.

Unfortunately, there were very few teaching positions available in the Sioux City metro area, so Blankers ended up taking a job in pharmaceutical sales, which served as her introduction to medicine. She worked in that industry for 12 years, never feeling as though she was neglecting her first degree.

Blankers, who plays trumpet and piano, has participated in various choirs and instrumental groups throughout her adult life, including a church orchestra. 

"You do a lot of teaching and learning in pharmaceutical sales, too," she said. "I don't feel like my first degree was ever a waste. You can use music throughout your life."

Growing, changing and adapting

After leaving pharmaceutical sales, Blankers spent some time as a stay-at-home mom raising her son and two daughters. Ironically, her children would all develop an interest in the medical field.

Andrea, 29, lives in Warsaw, Indiana, and works for a medical equipment supplier. Mark, 26, who also graduated from Northwestern, works for a durable medical equipment company in Houston, Texas, while Emily, 19, is a sophomore at Bethel University in St. Paul, Minnesota, majoring in occupational therapy.

In 1998, Blankers' husband's work transferred the family to Kalamazoo, Michigan. It was there that Blankers got a non-clinical job at a hospital, which she held for four years. She was stationed outside the emergency department and the intensive care unit, where she helped admit patients, answered questions and directed visitors.

When the family moved back to Sioux City in 2009, Blankers was ready to do something different with her life. She entertained the idea of becoming a physician assistant.

"I loved helping people in medicine and the human body and how it all works and how we're fearfully and wonderfully made," she said quoting scripture.

In the summer of 2010, Blankers took the plunge, enrolling in microbiology, anatomy and physiology classes at Western Iowa Tech Community College. Completing these basic science classes wasn't enough to get Blankers accepted into a physician assistant program, but they did give her the prerequisites she needed for an associate of applied science degree in nursing. She decided to pursue a nursing career, but there were challenges.

Learning curve

Technology had advanced since Blankers sat at an electric typewriter covering mistakes in term papers with a bottle of correction fluid or a roll of white tape. She nearly dropped an organic chemistry class when tasked with creating a PowerPoint presentation. Her husband helped her with the presentations, which she became more comfortable with as time went on.

"Some of the technology gave me more anxiety than actually learning the material, but I think I've grown and changed and adapted," she said.

Halfway through her coursework, Blankers experienced a major setback. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in June 2012. Blankers, who was treated for thyroid cancer five years earlier, underwent a double mastectomy in July. Luckily, she didn't need chemotherapy or radiation and resumed her studies in August.

"I think the Lord provided school for me as a way to keep my mind occupied and focused on something other than the cancer process," she said softly.

Glancing out an expansive picture window framing rolling green hills, she continued, "The whole ability to study and learn more about the human body, I could understand and have a little bit more control of the situation and insight into my own personal care."

The way things should be

After graduating in December 2013 from WIT, Blankers started nursing part-time at Mercy Medical Center -- Sioux City, where she presently works tending to patients recovering from stroke, traumatic brain injury and orthopedic injuries.

She also spends a few hours a week caring for a young child with cerebral palsy through UnityPoint at Home.

"I know the value of recognizing small steps and how oftentimes it's very difficult to do something that looks easy or you've always taken for granted," she said.

Lisa Brun, an acute inpatient rehabilitation program manager at Mercy who hired Blankers, said it's not uncommon for nursing to be a second career, but she said the majority of people going back to school for nursing are in their 30s, not their 50s. She said Blankers brings a great deal of compassion, empathy and maturity to her work at Mercy. She said the hospital is lucky to have such a "great nurse."

"She just has a really special relationship with patients because of some of the things she's gone through," she said. "She's very thorough and she asks all kinds of very intuitive questions. She really wants to make sure she's doing things the right way."

Mercy encourages its nurses who have an associate degree to get their bachelor of science in nursing degree within four years of hire. So, in the summer of 2015, Blankers headed back to school, returning to Northwestern, via the college's online nursing program.

Karie Stamer, director of Northwestern's online RN to BSN program, said it takes a lot of commitment and organization to graduate. She said students who are used to learning through face-to-face interaction not only have to adjust to learning outside a classroom, but to understanding and retaining a lot of material in a short amount of time.

"It's also about really good communication, because we know life is still going on," she said. "They're still working. They're still moms, and in Evonne's case, grandmas, with lots of other commitments."

Blankers was able to manage her time and stay motivated with support from her husband and her children. On her days off, she delved into her coursework, relying on the study skills she learned the first go-round to complete eight-week sessions that included online nursing simulators, research papers and capstone projects.

The red cords Blankers wore during the graduation ceremony were given to her in honor of being an outstanding graduating senior. Stamer said the award is bestowed upon two seniors whom nursing faculty believe exemplify the college's mission and vision.

Looking back on her path to nursing, Blankers wouldn't have it any other way.

"It's worked out very well. It feel like it's the way things should be," she said. 


Health and Lifestyles reporter

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