Michael Coffel (left) stands outside the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany.
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Contact: Mark McGowan, NIU Office of Public Affairs
December 11, 2007
DeKalb — Two more clinicals and one more class.
That’s all that stood between Michael Coffel and his master’s degree in nursing, something that will elevate the longtime operating room nurse to family nurse practitioner. The Northern Illinois University student (and 1989 bachelor’s degree alum) grew eager for graduation and the greater job status and extra family time it would afford.
But life in the U.S. Naval Reserves offers no guarantees.
And when the phone rang in October of 2006, deploying Coffel to a year’s tour of duty at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, the commander was determined to not let one commitment derail another.
“I was so close to finishing. I only had two semesters to go,” Coffel says. “I was leaving my family for a year. I was leaving my job. I had to uproot everything. But it’s my job, one that I signed up for. It’s my duty.”
Thanks to the Internet, however, the Naperville man will cross the stage Sunday, Dec. 16, to collect his diploma and realize his dreams on schedule. Commencement exercises begin at 9 a.m. in the NIU Convocation Center for students in the College of Health and Human Sciences.
“I’ve wanted to expand my career – do a little bit more in nursing – and I wanted to get my master’s as a family nurse practitioner so I could practice in the Navy as well,” he says. “I started back to school part-time in 2003, came in as a student-at-large for three semesters and then was accepted into the program. It’s a very good program, very well-structured and definitely challenging.”
“For Michael, it was a real hard year,” adds Diana Mertens, preceptor coordinator in the NIU School of Nursing and Health Studies. “It’s a really intense program, and it’s difficult for all the graduate students in general. Almost without exception, they’re working and they have family responsibilities. Michael ended up getting shipped out. All things considered, he did extraordinarily well.”
As Coffel prepared for active duty at Landstuhl, which cares for wounded troops from the Europe, the Middle East and Africa theaters before sending them home to the United States, he began exploring options to keep his NIU education on track.
He spoke with administrators at the school and at Landstuhl, all of whom agreed to allow him to continue his studies and clinical rotations while in Germany. Coffel consented to log 40-plus hours a week in the operating room and remain on-call during his time off, when he was allowed to treat a minimum of 182 patients in the hospital for his 182-hour clinical requirements.
The hospital provides medical support not only to members of the military but to their spouses, contractors and their spouses working in the theaters of action and retired military personnel and their spouses who live in Europe. It allowed Coffel to complete his women’s health clinical last spring. He finished his adult health clinical over the summer.
To attend class, he harnessed the power of the Web.
“I heard about a program called Skype. It’s kind of like AOL Aim or Yahoo Messenger, except that you can make phone calls with it through the computer. I had a video camera on my laptop, and I talked with my teachers and the administration to work out a way to get Skype on their computers. We set up a Web cam.”
Getting to the virtual classroom wasn’t always easy, he says.
Sometimes Landstuhl’s Internet connection was down, he says, or he would lose reception. The hours posed another headache.
“The first eight months I was out there were a little tough on me,” Coffel says. “Germany is seven hours ahead, so I was online at 11 o’clock at night until 2 o’clock in the morning. Then, I had to get up and P.T. (physical training) at 5 o’clock.”
Coffel joined the Navy in 1992, three years after earning a bachelor’s degree in nursing from NIU. He always had wanted to serve in the military, and had considered joining the Marines out of high school, but was convinced by a friend in the Navy to become a sailor.
As in the civilian world, he served as an operating room nurse in the Operational Health Support Unit based at Great Lakes. The unit has 26 detachments that span seven states.
He has served as officer-in-charge for a couple of the units, providing leadership to the others in his command and maintaining the health and records of the reservists at the center to maintain a ready state for deployment.
Away from the Reserves, Coffel has worked as an operating room nurse “all over Chicagoland” but has spent the last few years as an assistant to an orthopedic surgeon in DuPage County. After he sits for his boards, he hopes to remain in orthopedics but also has other job opportunities available to him.
“I’ll be able to see my own patients, make my own diagnoses, work in conjunction with other family practice doctors – or, in my case, with other orthopedic surgeons – and assist in surgery,” he says. “I like helping people. I’m able to do quite a bit, a little bit different than what the doctors do. They focus in on the patients’ problems, but nurse practitioners also focus in on the patients as a whole. We try to be more in touch with the patients.”
Meanwhile, his career in the Naval Reserves is in the final stretch.
Coffel has five years left before he can “retire at 20,” but it likely will seem easy after the labors of the last five years. His wife, an occupational therapist who works for the same medical group as Coffel, along with his 13-year-old son and his 9-year-old daughter, remember well his 12- to 14-hour days followed by his trips to the basement for study.
“I’ve just had a will to get this thing done,” Coffel says. “I’ve put so much time into it while being away from my family.”
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