When Lora Copeland first became a nurse four decades ago, the starting pay was $3.98 per hour.
Today, although the salaries have changed, the care and compassion for patients has remained the same.
As Copeland, 64, enters the twilight of her career at Mercy Hospital Washington, she hopes the estimated 30,000 patients she has treated in 43 years have seen Christ through her.
“I decided to go into nursing because of my sisters,” Copeland said. “I always wanted to be a veterinarian, but my father told me he couldn’t support me through vet school, so I settled for nursing.”
After graduating from Union High School, Copeland entered a nursing diploma program and followed her older sister, who was a senior in the same three-year program.
“She was my mentor,” Copeland said. “She helped guide me.”
After graduating in 1974, Copeland attempted to join the U.S. Air Force.
“Vietnam was just ending and I thought it would be neat to be a flight nurse,” she said. “Instead I was put on medical hold. I prayed about it and came back here to work at what was then St. Francis Hospital in Washington.”
She started working part-time in the intensive care unit (ICU) and was planning on looking around at other locations for full-time work, including Colorado to be closer to a sister working in Colorado Springs.
Instead, a full-time ICU position opened at St. Francis and that is where she has been for 43 years working her way up to manager.
“I’ve always had a foot in the ICU,” Copeland said. “I became manager in 1978, but I still had patients.”
Copeland credits her sister for helping her with her career and she can also credit a sister with helping her find the love of her life.
“I had always known Mike because we went to the same church,” she explained. “My sister told me I should give him a chance, so when he asked me out we hit it off.”
The couple began dating in April 1975 and were married six short months later and stayed that way until Mike’s death after a battle with melanoma last year.
Maj. Mike Copeland was a Franklin County Sheriff’s Deputy for more than 40 years and served as Chief Deputy under former Sheriff Gary Toelke since 1988.
Originally hired as a dispatcher in the communications division in 1971, he was commander of the SWAT team for many years and was responsible for many of the trainings and polices the department follows present day.
“Mike was 24 and I was 22 when we got married,” Copeland said. “He was a little guy, 5’8” inches in his boots. The only time I ever worried about him was when he was SWAT commander. Seeing him put that gear on. That and teenagers increases your prayer life.”
The couple had their first child, John in 1980, followed by their daughter Tammy six years later.
Copeland added her husband was always somewhat hard of hearing, and it seemed to get more selective with age.
“A lot of times the kids would be talking to him calling Dad over and over, but he wouldn’t respond,” she said. “But, as soon as they called him Major, he would always stop and turn.”
As her husband served as a mentor to young deputies, Copeland did the same for new nurses at the hospital.
“I always loved to help nurses learn more and do what they want to do in their career,” she said. “They also have to learn to let go of patients.”
She added it currently takes about five months to fully train nurses even after they get their educations.
“They learn by experience,” she said. “It’s a lot different now. When I first started, they showed you around. Showed you the equipment and how to work it and you were on your own.”
Throughout the years, Copeland says the number one thing that has improved in her field is technology and how it is used.
“The only technology that hasn’t improved is the bed pan,” she said with a smile. “All they’ve done is gone from metal to plastic.”
In addition to her duties in the ICU, Copeland has also played an integral role in training first responders throughout the county using her expertise in cardiology to teach at least 750 paramedic students heart anatomy, physiology and cardiac rhythms at East Central College since the 1970s.
In July she received the Jack Lyons Instructor/Coordinator Award from the Missouri EMS Association.
With retirement on the horizon, Copeland says she really isn’t sure what her plans are. She and Mike had planned on doing some light traveling, but since it’s just her and the golden retriever in the house now, she just doesn’t know.”
Copeland is currently Grandma to four grandchildren and number five is on the way this fall.
“I plan on being a Grandma,” she said. “I may do some volunteer work or see what works out for me. I would really like to do some scrapbooking for all of the grandkids.”
She says she will miss part of nursing, everything except the bedpans.
“I wish I knew then what I know now,” Copeland said. “Treating people with respect is always important. Giving them the dignity they deserve is important.”