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LPN Graduates Inspire Each Other


        In the course of nine years, while her husband suffered from brain cancer, Marilyn Valkema found invaluable comfort from the nurses who stood by her side.
     One nurse grasped her hands and prayed fervently with her in the intensive care unit of a Toronto hospital, where Valkema’s husband, Andrew, had his first craniotomy. Another poured love on the entire family, not just Andrew, when he needed frequent care in his home. A third stayed with Valkema at the time of her husband’s death, giving her strength and calling family and friends in the pre-dawn hours.
     On Thursday, July 21, Valkema recalled these stories as she stood on stage at Gillette Road Middle School in North Syracuse. She had just become a nurse herself, the valedictorian of a class of 35 graduating licensed practical nurses, or LPNs, from the Adult Education program at Onondaga-Cortland-Madison BOCES.
     “These nurses,” she said, “literally changed my life. And what they did was not for a paycheck. ...They did it only because they cared.”
    The experience with her husband propelled Valkema into a career of caregiving. It gave purpose to her loss. It helped her pursue a vocation that will allow her to help patients and their families – like hers -- when they need it most.
    Valkema told her story dressed in the traditional bright white nurse’s uniform and cap – what all graduates wore on this humid summer evening.
     The graduation ceremony offered a pinning ceremony in the tradition of Florence Nightingale, the founder of modern nursing. Graduates picked a significant other to walk on stage and press a pin onto the right breast of their uniform, a symbol of their dedication. Fathers, mothers, children, boyfriends -- even entire extended families walked onto the stage, quietly pinning their loved ones and offering congratulatory hugs.
     Later, the new LPNs recited the International Council of Nurses’ Pledge, in which they promise to care for the sick, no matter what their patients' backgrounds, with all the skills and understanding a nurse can possess. A line of candles flickered on the front floor of the stage.
      Valkema’s 17-year-old daughter, Emileigh, pressed the pin to her mother’s uniform. Since her first husband died, Valkema has remarried. She met her current husband, Walter, through a support network; he had also lost a spouse to brain cancer. They combined their two families --- five children in all -- and settled in Liverpool. Three graduated from high school last June.
     With more time on her hands, Valkema knew it was time to go back to school, to officially become a nurse. She had worked at a bank before, but she called it “just a job.” She hopes to work in a hospice environment, a familiar setting.
     “This was the most cathartic thing I could have done,” she said of her new profession, “for healing.”
     Despite the magnitude of her own story, Valkema was impressed by the perseverance of her classmates, who faced their own joys and struggles since the LPN program began in September 2015. One student lost a mother to cancer. Others faced private losses of their own. A few were still learning English. Many juggled motherhood with school, prompting Valkema to call them “Super Moms and stellar women, indeed!” 
     On the plus side, they also enjoyed each other’s celebrations: a new baby, an engagement, a new house.
     “I wish each one of you all the best as you venture into life as nurses,” Valkema said, turning toward her classmates at the end of her speech. “Thank you for the year we shared.”   

Here are just a few scenes from the graduation:

    
   
   

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