Introducing. . .the Mark Brothers and Sid!

Sound like a new comedy team? Guess again. These three guys are former welders who are now enjoying successful careers as nurses.

Their unusual story began about three years ago in Dansville, N.Y., when Foster Wheeler–a manufacturer of large industrial boilers–announced that it was shutting down its plant. James Mark of Dansville, Walter Mark of Wayland, N.Y., and Sidney Henry of Dansville were all welders at the plant. They thought their jobs were secure and that they were set for life. After all, their parents and grandparents had made a good living at Foster Wheeler. Walt had even worked at the plant during high school.

Then the announcement came. Soon there was talk of retraining laid-off workers through the federal Trade Readjustment Act (TRA), using New York State Workforce Development funds. The problem was that the only training guaranteed for two years was nursing. None of the three men had ever considered nursing as a career, but at that point all options were open. They learned that Alfred State College (ASC) in nearby Alfred, N.Y., offered a two-year nursing program.

Jim Mark got to thinking: “I could get a college degree–a dream I had given up on many years ago. I guess it just goes to show that you never know what life is going to throw at you. I had a chance to start over. I had nothing to lose. It was a leap of faith.”

Nursing students (L-R) James Mark, Sidney Henry and Walter Mark practice their skills on a classmate posing as a patient.Nursing students (L-R) James Mark, Sidney Henry and Walter Mark practice their skills on a classmate posing as a patient.

Still, for both Jim and his brother, the idea of going to nursing school was “very intimidating,” says Walt. “I was out of school 30 years and [now I was] going to college!”

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Sid, a former Marine, had already made up his mind; he’d known for six months that he would be laid off. Having volunteered as an ambulance driver for several years, he had had the opportunity to see nurses in action. “I saw that emergency room nurses [work] as a team and thought it would be a very fulfilling career,” he explains. “After being laid off from Foster Wheeler, I realized I had the chance to join that team.”

When the Mark brothers heard about Sid’s plans, they decided to go for it, too. Next, they had to convince the TRA representative that pursuing a nursing career after years as welders was not that far-fetched. Somehow, they were convincing and received the funding.

“Quitting Was Not an Option”

After taking some prerequisite courses–biology, algebra, chemistry–during the summer, Sid, Jim and Walt began the ASC nursing program in fall 2003. Interestingly, there were 15 men in the entering class.

The three ex-welders initially found their nursing classes so difficult that they wondered if they were up to the challenge. But they were determined to stay the course.

“The first time you see the nursing notebook, it’s intimidating,” Jim recalls. “You’re thinking, ‘I can’t do this. It’s impossible!’ I was just an average student in high school. But we didn’t come there to drop out. Quitting was not an option.”

They began to feel they’d made the right choice the first time they went out on clinical duty. The positive response from the patients caught them off guard.

“We weren’t used to the gratitude,” says Jim.

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“You get numerous compliments,” Sid adds. “The patients like [the fact] that you are there to help them.”

Interacting with patients for the first time brought other surprises as well. “People have no modesty when they see you have a nurse’s uniform on,” says Jim. “But it’s amazing how fast you adjust.”

Watching the three of them perform in the clinical setting, professors and classmates began to get the impression that maybe a gig as a comedy team might also be in the men’s future.

“Patients especially loved their sense of humor,” says Mary S. Smith, professor of nursing, who supervised the trio during their freshman year in both the classroom and in clinical, where the students “work” in local hospital settings. “Although their occupational experience and backgrounds were far from a caring field like nursing, Walt, Jim and Sid all displayed a natural ability to work well with patients. The men were capable, positive caregivers who worked hard from the beginning to achieve their new educational goals.

“On occasion, a former Foster Wheeler employee would [be admitted as a patient and] discover Walt, Jim or Sid as their nurse,” Smith continues. “They would express surprise at the men’s new career, but they also encouraged them for eventual success in the nursing program.”

Something Special

Other ASC faculty members who taught the Mark brothers and Sid were similarly impressed. “I had both Jim and Walt in clinical the third semester,” says Catherine W. Richmond, professor of nursing. “It was often like having a comedy team in the group–they played off each other well.” (The comedy, she is quick to add, was reserved for times when they were not caring for patients.)

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“They were both really excellent and received many compliments from patients and their families,” Richmond continues. “I think they could relate well to all patients–maybe because of their age or their background.”

Adds Linda K. Panter, associate professor of nursing, “I had Sid in the clinical area, where he demonstrated high standards for himself. Sid is a person with a great deal of passion and respect for his profession. He loves nursing and in my opinion, he will move quickly up the clinical ladder.”

Although Panter did not have the Mark brothers in clinical, she did have frequent contact with them. “I must say, not a day went by that one of them, especially Jim, did not have something jovial to say,” she reports. “If nursing had an award representing a person who is full of life, both Mark brothers would have received that award.”

According to Panter, “Fridays were the fun day, because [the men] always needed to get a signature –or what Jim would call my autograph–in order to have proof that they were attending college. Having the opportunity to watch three adult men do a 180-degree turn into the nursing profession was an experience in itself.”

Cynthie R. Luehman, professor and chair of the ASC Nursing Department, agrees. “These men are very special. They truly have developed a passion for nursing and they are natural at helping others,” she says. “I think Sid initially thought he would just concentrate on academics, but he quickly became involved as a class officer. He has spent many hours serving as a volunteer tutor assisting other classmates.

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“The Mark brothers have a very special bond that is delightful to see. I wish there were some way to capture in words the atmosphere that surrounds them. They laugh at
themselves, they enjoy life–even in this stressful program–and they support others, cheering them up and cheering them on.”

Only the Beginning

After completing their first full year of coursework, plus some more summer classes, the trio of welders turned nursing students began to feel they would actually make it.

“The third semester was by far the hardest. I stressed myself out,” says Walt. But with the support of pep talks from classmates and faculty, the trio persevered. They started work on the Caring Project, a part of the curriculum designed to put students out in the community to help with medically related projects.

On May 15, 2005, Walt, Jim and Sid achieved their goal: They graduated with associate’s degrees in nursing. Out of the original 15 men who began the program two years earlier, nine graduated in the 38-member class. The trio made up a third of the male grads.

All three made the Dean’s List most semesters, meaning they maintained at least a 3.5 grade point average out of a possible 4.0. In addition, Sid is a member of Phi Theta Kappa, the honor society for two-year college students.

The day after graduation, Sid headed to a job at Strong Memorial Hospital in Rochester, N.Y. As part of a flex team, he’ll rotate to a different unit every three months, beginning in cardiac-thoracic. Then it will be on to the burn unit and the acute side of the emergency room. He eventually wants to land in the ER full-time. Sid also has plans to pursue a BSN degree. “And a master’s degree has crossed my mind,” he adds.

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As for the Mark brothers, Walt works the 3-11 p.m. shift on a medical-surgical floor at Nicholas Noyes Hospital in Dansville. His brother is on the same floor from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. Eventually, they’d both like to work in the operating room. After they have been on the job for a year, the hospital will help to pay for an advanced degree.

Now that they’ve reinvented themselves as nurses, these three career changers are enjoying newfound job security. But nursing is much more than just a job to them–it is truly a passion.

“[During a nursing shortage], when it is recognized that nursing is a career with many job opportunities, some people may choose nursing for the wrong reasons,” notes ASC’s Luehman. “[But whatever the trio’s] reasons for considering nursing initially, these men recognize and model that which is the essence of nursing. They now possess the background knowledge and technical skills needed in nursing and will be lifelong learners. But equally as important, they care about and for others. They will be an asset to the nursing profession.”

Still, for that humorous and caring team of nurses The Mark Brothers and Sid, the nursing shortage has its advantages. “We used to be considered a dime a dozen [as welders],” says Jim. “Now we’re in demand.”

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