The summer before his freshman year at Chicago’s St. Rita High School, Tom Rehfeld and his family were jolted by a tragic event.
Rehfeld’s older brother, Billy, was a passenger in a serious car crash that left him badly injured.
“Their car got cut off,” Tom Rehfeld said. “The car flipped a few times and it hit a fire hydrant.”
Billy Rehfeld, who was in the back seat on the passenger’s side, took the brunt of that impact. He suffered numerous broken bones and eventually had his lower left leg amputated.
“I spent almost an entire summer with my family spending time with him in a hospital setting,” Tom Rehfeld said of his brother, who is now fully recovered and walks with a prosthetic leg.
While watching his brother rehabilitate and recover, Rehfeld kept a close eye on the people who cared for Billy every day, from intensive care to a medical-surgical unit to physical therapy and all over the hospital.
What he noticed paved a path for Rehfeld’s future college education at Western Illinois University in Macomb, where the senior also is the Leathernecks’ starting middle linebacker.
Along with the skill that Billy’s nurses showed, “there was a true caring component to the job that hit me,” he said.
After starting his career as a walk-on linebacker at WIU in 2015, Rehfeld became the school’s first football player to be accepted into the WIU nursing program.
This fall, Rehfeld is a graduate student who is enrolled in the master of public health program.
And he’s also already a registered nurse, having passed his Illinois state boards in July.
“It was incredible,” Rehfeld said of passing the state licensure test. “I spent the whole month of June studying.”
Two of Rehfeld’s teammates – senior safety Eric Carrera and junior punter Adam Feller – have followed the linebacker’s footsteps into nursing and have made quite an impact.
“Other students have told me that when they’re struggling to understand something, they will go to the athletes,” said Lynn Bartlett, a WIU School of Nursing faculty member. “All these young men are so outgoing and willing to help their classmates.”
Not your average major
The violence of football and the caring nature of nursing may not seem like a good match.
“I don’t think (compassion) translates to the football field,” joked Dr. Lea Monahan, director of the school of nursing.
When he was being recruited as a high school player, Rehfeld was discouraged by several schools to study nursing and play football because of the time commitment involved in both. At Western, then coached by Bob Nielson, the opposite was true.
After taking two years of prerequisite courses, students apply for the WIU nursing program. If accepted, they spend their junior and senior years doing clinical shifts in local hospitals to work in various specialties and hone their patient care skills. These demanding work shifts can be very difficult on an athlete’s schedule.
In addition, clinical sites aren’t always across town. Rehfeld and Carrera have done clinical rotations at Macomb’s McDonough District Hospital, but also have spent time learning at Blessing Hospital in Quincy, OSF St. Mary Medical Center in Galesburg and Graham Hospital in Canton.
Sometimes that means a 60- to 90-minute drive for a nursing shift that starts at 7 a.m.
That can lead to having to cut a weightlifting session short or miss a football meeting to get to the hospital on time.
“I’ve never once in my life seen myself as someone in an office with a suit and tie,” said Carrera, who is in his final year in the program. “I’ve always gotten the most out of helping people. It’s really fulfilling.”
Fellner, who is in his first semester in the program, said nursing has lived up to its demanding reputation.
“It’s hard, and I expected it to be hard,” he said. “But as long as you stay ahead and don’t procrastinate, you’ll be fine.”
How they make it work
Working with football players and athletes in other sports is nothing new for Monahan and the WIU faculty.
In fact, it’s a source of pride.
“I have found incredible value having athletes in our program,” nursing faculty member Lindsay White said. “We’re very glad to accommodate these students because they’re very disciplined. They know what they want, and they work hard for it.”
Before each semester begins, athletes will work with faculty members to discuss potential hurdles to the schedule, such as road games, practice and meeting times, and make other accommodations.
“I don’t think any two (student-athletes) have the same schedule,” Monahan said. “We work very closely with the athletics department. Everything’s up front. We tell them what’s non-negotiable, but we try to keep those things to a bare minimum. It works.”
The biggest non-negotiable academic piece is clinical learning, one of the most valuable aspects of a nursing education.
“They’ve got to have clinical,” Monahan said. “Does it have to be like everybody else? No. They can miss, but we figure out alternative activities they can do” to gain experience.
Rehfeld and Carrera have played for three different WIU head coaches – Nielson, Charlie Fisher and now Jared Elliott. Each of them, along with their staffs, worked much like the nursing faculty to ensure football and academic responsibilities were met.
“It’s a credit to Coach Elliott and his staff and all the coaches,” Rehfeld said. “They’ve been so great about us pursing academics.”
Earlier this semester, Carrera had to miss a practice to attend a pediatric healthcare conference in Peoria.
“When I told Coach Elliott, he didn’t even bat an eye,” Carrera said. “He said, ‘OK. Go do your thing.’”
Rehfeld, who said multiple position coaches have stayed late to catch him up on what he has missed, also credited the understanding of Monahan and the nursing faculty through a busy football season.
“They’re so caring, and they do such a good job,” he said. “That’s why me and Eric and Adam have been able to maneuver our way through the program while playing football.”
Learning the ropes
Fellner’s academic career started as an athletic training major then moved to exercise science.
After discussing the nursing program with Rehfeld, “I decided to go for it,” he said.
Fellner, a native of Wisconsin who attended high school in Missouri, has a cousin who works as an orthopedic surgeon in the Chicago area. After nursing school, he eventually hopes to be a nurse practitioner.
“Aside from my love for science and my passion for health, it was just being able to care for people, as well as being able to have a positive impact on somebody’s life,” he said of what drew him to the program.
This semester, he is learning about communication skills to interact with patients, along with basics such as starting IVs and giving shots.
“It was being able to build a relationship with people you’re caring for and getting to know them,” he said. “That’s what really intrigued me (about nursing).”
Fellner and his classmates are working at local nursing homes and assisted living facilities this semester, learning how to take health history information and interact with patients.
His class is also working at the student health center to administer flu shots on campus. Fellner has encouraged teammates to get their flu shots.
“I’ve been spreading the word. A few of the guys were a little hesitant,” he said with a laugh.
Growing up around healthcare
Perhaps nothing had a greater impact on Carrera’s career choice than his mother, who is a laboratory manager at Washington University in St. Louis who works closely with the immunology department at Barnes-Jewish Hospital.
“Whenever I’d go to her work, I’d be talking to doctors and meeting nurses,” he said. “I think that was one of the things that pushed me (to nursing).”
Carrera began as a biology major at WIU with the goal of going into pre-med. But he admits he got a little antsy.
“I thought, ‘I want to be in the hospital now,’” he said. “I thought the nursing program would get me there quicker.”
Early on in the nursing program, Carrera was eager to get into patient care while learning communication techniques, a foundational tool for any nurse.
“I thought, ‘This is great, but I want to go start IVs,’” he said. “I was almost getting frustrated.”
The work on communication, however, paid dividends. Carrera now considers it one of his biggest strengths as a healthcare provider.
“It really equipped me with some skills to have tough conversations (with patients),” he said.
One of those patients during his clinicals, a woman with severe chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD), was nearing the end of her life. She was known to curse at nurses and be a difficult patient. During one shift, Carrera was part of her care team.
Much like with the other nurses, Carrera didn’t receive a warm response from the patient.
“You just can’t let that bother you,” he said. “I stayed patient and I stayed respectful and she saw that. I was still polite to her and she started showing she was just scared and worried about her health.
“I was able to talk to her about why she was scared,” Carrera said, “and told her how I would make her comfortable and that we were providing the best care we possibly could.”
The experience had a profound impact on what nursing means to Carrera.
“It’s really fulfilling,” he said. “You learn so much about others and the human experience and yourself, too. Interacting with people – especially when they need help and are sick – those are the most meaningful moments.”
The future awaits
Carrera, whose clinical time this semester is taking place in obstetrics in Canton and community nursing throughout the area, has a game plan beyond his senior year.
A hard-hitting safety who is used to being around the action on gamedays, he plans to return to St. Louis to work in trauma and emergency room nursing, which are considered two of the most active areas of a hospital.
“I like the fast-paced kind of stuff,” he said.
After the football season, Rehfeld plans to start interviewing for jobs – most likely in the Chicago area – to gain experience.
“I know that there’s still so much to learn,” he said, though some of his teammates seek healthcare advice regularly. “A lot of guys assume that if something’s wrong with them that I can diagnose them.”
Rehfeld will need some hands-on experience to advance to his ultimate goal, working as a certified registered nurse anesthetist (CRNA), which involves collaborating with surgeons and anesthesiologists to ensure the safe administration of anesthesia.
“I have that passion because of Western,” Rehfeld said.
On clinical days that weren’t busy on his hospital unit, faculty members encouraged him to shadow the CRNAs to learn about their job.
“It’s something that’s going to take a lot more work,” he said.
CRNA programs are highly competitive and require three years of additional school. To prepare, he hopes to find a job on an intensive care unit or at a Level I trauma unit, which provides the most advanced level of trauma care.
“I’m excited to start interviewing and get my foot in the door,” he said.