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Janet Coe: Nursing degree 'opened up doors I didn't know existed'

From the Recognizing 10 outstanding nurses who make the Butte area a better place series
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Janet Coe

Janet Coe: "It's such an honor to fill this role at this school."

When it comes to nursing, there are many rooms in the mansion. Janet Coe knows: She's worked in a lot of them.

Coe has had a rich and varied career leading to her current position as interim nursing director, running Montana Tech's rapidly expanding nursing program.

And to think it all started with flunking physics.

Then Janet Richards, she had started school at Montana Tech in environmental engineering after graduating from Butte High in 1990.

A year and a half into it, the physics was not going well. She talked with her professor, who said, "I don't know what to tell you. You understand the concepts, but it seems like it's something you don't have interest in, or don't want to do."

That made Janet think about what she did want to do. But when that led her to nursing, there was a problem: She couldn't get a bachelor's in nursing at Tech. The school didn't offer one.

So she transferred to MSU. On the way to getting her bachelor's in 1995, she had the option of completing her clinical rotation in Billings, Missoula or Great Falls. She applied for Missoula, and got it.

"I think I was a Griz at heart," she laughed. "My degree says I'm a 'Cat." She eventually solved that, of course, by returning to her Oredigger roots.

She spent the last two years of nursing school in Missoula, working at St. Patrick Hospital and Community Medical Center.

She graduated and got married the same summer. Stephen Coe was working in Nampa, Idaho, so that's where she went, going to work at St. Alphonse's Regional Medical Center, where she would spend a lot of her career.

Coe started in long-term care at St. Alphonsus inpatient rehabilitation unit. "I took care of stroke patients, orthopedic patients, head and spinal injury patients," she said.

Then she tranferred to the hospital's cardiac center, working first in telemetry and then in the coronary care unit, caring for patients after heart surgeries or heart attacks.

It was there that she began fulfilling some management and administrative functions, including admissions, discharges and patient assignment. "I'd help assess where patients needed to be placed," she said, "You make the decisions: How critical are they? Should they go to a different unit? We were matching up staffing with patient needs."

After a health crisis of her own that required surgery and a 22-day hospital stay, Janet decided to take a different role as part of her own emotional and physical healing. She began doing childbirth and lactation education, and doing some nursing education for the hospital.

She then worked in the hospital's sales department, helping to sell contracts for to large employers for occupational healthcare. She went into the community, doing immunization clinics, wellness and other onsite nursing. 

"What I love about nursing is there are so many roles you can fill as a nurse," she says. "I found that nursing degree opened up doors I didn't know existed."

She also worked for the hospital's medical access center, coordinating patient movement in and out of the hospital, keeping track of staffing across the hospital.

Meanwhile, the Coes' five-year Idaho plan had turned into 17 years, and they were both ready for a return to their hometown, which happened in 2011.

Now what? Coe wondered. "I had always had a passion for teaching and education. I talked with Karen VanDeveer, who headed the nursing school, and she said she'd love to have me as a teacher, but I'd need to get a master's degree."

So she managed to complete her master's degree in nursing online, from Western Governors University in Salt Lake City. "It prepared me well," she said, and she was able to land a tenured teaching position at Tech.

Soon VanDeveer asked her to take on a new part of the school — the simulation lab.

Eventually she was able to add faculty and purchase some more of the expensive high-tech simulation equipment, and began planning for an on-campus simulation center starting in 2021.

"It's been a fun project to start from the ground up and watch it build," she said.

Of the planned Praxis Center private simulation center planned for Uptown Butte, she said "I think it's total synergy" to have both centers in Butte.

VanDeveer, longtime nursing director, recently was given the assignment of interim Dean of Tech's College of Letters, Science, & Professional Studies. And Coe was asked to fill in behind her as interim nurisng director. That assignment was recently extended through June 2021, she said.

It's been a huge challenge, but she's really enjoyed it. She jokes: "Sometimes I wonder if we should add yoga to our curriculum. As a nurse, you have to be flexible."

"What a great opportunity it's been to step in and try out the role, all the while working with a fantastic mentor and leader like Karen," Coe said.

"It's such an honor to fill this role at this school. Montana Tech’s reputation reaches all across the world," she added.

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