On the front line for LC State nursing students Ella-Mae Keatts' approach to class and life shows why the students love her

Ella-Mae Keatts laughs about the story of how she wound up in Lewiston, Idaho, and eventually teaching in the Nursing & Health Sciences Division at Lewis-Clark State College. After all, it is an amusing story, both to tell and how, despite everything pointing to the contrary, it all came together for her.

Ella-Mae is in her 28th year teaching at LC State in a highly respected nursing program. She is a key component of a talented staff that regularly produces graduates who score a higher pass rate than the national average for the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX), the exam that determines whether it’s safe for a graduate to begin practice as an entry-level nurse.

Ella-Mae’s energy and love for what she does has a definite impact on her students. Her classes are engaging and entertaining, which is why she is constantly named among the favorite professors on campus each year by a vote of the college’s graduating class.

“LCSC is like this little jewel in the backyard and we do amazing things, our nursing program in particular,” Ella-Mae says. “I think we are a real rare commodity and I love being a part of it.”

How she eventually came to Lewiston and became a part of the LC State family could be considered chance, fate, or even, as she would call it, “God’s path.” And the original legality of it, well, that’s another issue.

Ella-Mae was born in British Columbia and moved to Hoquiam, Wash., when she was in grade school. She eventually attended Shoreline Community College where she realized she wanted to go on a medical mission trip to Asia.

“It seemed like a great place to start your nursing career on a mission trip,” Ella-Mae said. “That was the mid-1980s and there wasn’t a nursing shortage and you really had to climb the ladder.”

One of Ella-Mae’s classmates talked to her about becoming a critical care nurse and working in the intensive care unit at hospitals. The classmate found you could become an ICU nurse through classes and work at St. Joseph Regional Medical Center in Lewiston and tried to talk Ella-Mae into joining her.

“My friend wants me to move to Lewiston and I’m thinking there’s not a chance,” Elle Mae says. “Besides I’m thinking about a Malaysian refugee camp is a great place to start your career in missions.”

However, without Ella-Mae’s consent, the friend filled out an application for Ella-Mae to the Lewiston program and forged her signature. The friend then told Ella-Mae what she did. Ella-Mae says her response was less than enthusiastic to her friend.

“But I knew with critical care experience you could go anywhere in the world,” Ella-Mae says. “Then they (St. Joe’s) called and said they would pay for my plane fare if I came over for an interview. At that point, my friend was not a candidate because of her board results. So I decided as a Christian I would pray about it a lot. It became clear, if I get the job, then great, but if not, then Malaysia. And I got the freakin’ job!”

Ella-Mae says she made the move to Lewiston “kicking and screaming” by herself and that she had planned to be here just the 477 days it took to get certified.

“Lewiston was not on the map for me, but I started in 1987 and here I am still today,” she says. “I really love Lewiston.” 

Ella-Mae admits the thought of missions work pops in her head from time to time, and while it’s still on her bucket list, she was able to raise and put through school two daughters at the college (the youngest is a nurse in the Seattle area).

“Why would I want to leave a job that I love so much?” she says about LC State. I’m proud of the work we do and the fantastic people I work with who are dedicated and enthusiastic about the nursing program.”

Ella-Mae worked at St. Joe’s for 26 years, mostly in the ICU and emergency room. It was there in the early 1990s when she met Mary McFarland, who was a clinical teacher at LC State.

“We had clinicals on Tuesday and Wednesdays and it seemed like I was always there,” Ella-Mae says. “So I would take students under my wing and show them all the cool parts of the ICU. Mary told me I really needed to become a teacher when I was done with my bachelor’s degree. So after I graduated, I started at LC the next fall and have loved it ever since.”

Shortly after she left the hospital, she was approached by a former student about another career avenue. During her time in the ICU at the hospital, there was a steady stream of patients brought in on helicopters, based in Spokane.

“I thought maybe someday I would like to be a flight nurse but I would have to move to Spokane, so I just thought it was one of those dreams probably,” she says. “But then Life Flight came to Lewiston about 10 years ago.”

Her former student was working there and talked to Ella-Mae about it. She told Ella-Mae they could work around her teaching schedule. After talking with LC State administrators, Ella-Mae decided to become a flight nurse. She’s been doing it for nine years now, which includes weekend shifts.

“I am a little thrill-seeking junkie,” she says. “I love the thrill of having a really critical situation and bringing the patient around. It’s quite a niche for me. I like the nature of not knowing what you are going to do. When we get the call, we don’t know a lot about what’s happening until we get there.”

And while she enjoys being a flight nurse, she knows her true calling is with teaching.

“The faculty members I work with are top notch,” she says. “I’m very enthusiastic and very passionate about my particular niche of nursing and I love it. I want to impart that love to others. But I’m just a part of a team of really good people.”

And a good team that provides a thorough and unique nursing education.

“You will get a great education in our nursing program,” Ella-Mae says. “I think the biggest thing that stands out about nursing here is you are going to come to our program and you are going to be known. And we are going to bend over backwards to try to help you be successful. We had a student who lost one of their parents and immediately after she died, we put together a meal plan for that student. I don’t think you are going to find that kind of attention somewhere else.”

Ella-Mae also says she’s proud of the nurses the college produces.

“You hear from hospitals in Boise and the Pacific Northwest that they love LC students,” she says. “They feel like we give them a really quality education. I think we do a really good job of preparing students for their first year of nursing. That’s a big adjustment that first year because it’s quite a learning curve to be responsible for another human being. But we prepare them for that.”

Ella-Mae says it does mean something to her to be recognized by students as one of their favorites at the college.

“I have fun in the classroom. I act things out, so I’m goofy and memorable. I pretend I’m a platelet with plaque and what that means. They (platelets) adhere and can cause a clot, which is what causes a heart attack. So I get students to adhere and stick together like a clot. Students like that.

“And I have a tendency to be super relational. I love it when they come by the office just to shoot the bull. They want to feel cared about it and I think, personally, I can identify as part of the group.”

She says she doesn’t know where the high energy comes from that she brings to the classroom.

“I am a super strong Christian person and I feel the jobs we have do matter, and that we are really more than a college,” she says. “We are all part of the impactful mission of people working through the profession of nursing. In the end, that keeps me really motivated. I know I’m definitely the cup is half full flowing over person. I’ve had a terrific life because my gifts align with my profession and it feels great.”

Ella-Mae knows it’s an interesting time to be a nurse, especially being on the front line with COVID-19, the Coronavirus pandemic.

“On some level, it makes me even feel a little bit emotional,” she says. “It can be really scary. We could potentially catch something or die. So it’s scary. There is a sacrifice that takes place in working in health care. It can be a dangerous job.

“On the other hand, it’s a noble thing to take care of sick people. There’s an amount of bravery it takes to step over the line and take care of people who have the disease. I love what I do. I’m super proud to be a nurse!”