Life Stories

LIFE STORIES: Retired Air Force medic gets second start in life

Betsy Powell poses for a photo at Vatterott College on Friday, Sep. 22, 2017. Powell is a retired Air Force Medic and is now the program director for the college’s medical assistant program. | H-W Photo/Jake Shane
Jake Shane1|
By Herald-Whig
Posted: Sep. 25, 2017 8:35 am Updated: Sep. 25, 2017 9:22 am

QUINCY -- The best way to face life knowing a lung transplant is looming in your future is to stay in the moment.

Betsy Powell backs that advice with first-hand experience. She just tries to focus on the present and not to think about it. It's worked for the past five years, since she was diagnosed with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis -- a chronic lung disease that usually proves fatal between three and five years. The degeneration of her lungs hasn't halted, but it has slowed significantly, much to her delight and her doctor's astonishment.

She has a green oxygen tank leaning against the wall of her office at Vatterott College, where she is program director for the medical assistant program. She wears the oxygen most of the time. She wore it into her interview at Vatterott, because to go without it would be a lie. Her youthful zeal quickly eliminated any worries from colleagues or coworkers that she couldn't keep up.

Formerly Betsy Plawer, the retired Air Force medic has the gift of gab, and she exercises her gift freely and often. Her parents would often remark about how she met somebody new everywhere she went.

"Talking helps break the ice in a lot of things you do in life," she said.

Early on, she had aspirations of a musical career, but that dream never came to fruition the way she envisioned. Within a year of graduating high school, she was married. A couple years later, while training to be a licensed practical nurse, she enlisted in the Air Force, essentially on a whim.

"I'd never considered it before," she said. "I have no idea what made me do it."

Initially tapped to serve as a radio communications analysis specialist, she pleaded her case to be a medic instead, but the higher-ups ignored her requests. When her security clearance was denied because her grandfather had fought for Germany in World War I before immigrating to America, she got her wish.

"At first I was mad that I didn't get the position I didn't even want," she said, "but I got to be a medic because of it."

A four-year tour turned into eight years, and once you have eight years in, "why wouldn't you" keep it going.

"I really never thought I would stay in for just under 25 years," she said. She retired in 2003 as a senior master sergeant.

Working in the Air Force hospital while stationed in San Antonio, a supervisor told her not to bother testing for a higher rank after two years in, because more men get promoted than women.

"I made him eat those words," she said, noting that the promotion made her staff sergeant.

Her musical abilities were revealed when a drill sergeant asked her to sing something as a punishment, and Powell belted out "Grandma's Feather Bed" by John Denver on the spot. Word spread, and soon, she was singing the national anthem at all sorts of special military occasions, rubbing elbows with higher-ranking members along the way.

"I've had several throat surgeries, and I still sing, but nothing like I used to," she said. "I don't have the same range."

She saw five typhoons in a month and a half while stationed in Guam. When she returned to Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, she prepared supplies and helped coordinate surgical teams that went into active warzones.

The Twin Towers fell while she was stateside. After 9/11, there was an almost tangible shift in the culture and the way in which the military was viewed by the public. She enlisted in a time of peace, but when Desert Shield/Desert Storm began, she saw patriotism in the country ramp up.

"It kind of lulled back down again (after Desert Storm), but then it spiked with 9/11," she said. "People were knocking down the doors trying to get into the military. They'd hurt us on our own land, and nobody was going to put up with that."

She describes herself as "fiercely patriotic." After being hired at Vatterott, she helped get a flag pole erected on the grounds. A knitted flag hangs on the wall of her office, over her right shoulder.

A second calling

In 2003, retired from the military and having recently become a grandmother, Powell began to contemplate her future. A stint in Texas was cut short when she moved back to Quincy to care for her ailing parents. Her father died less than two weeks after she returned.

A constant need to stay busy brought her back to school at 50. She first obtained her associate of arts degree, but didn't find a career that fit her. Considering medical transcription work – a job she assumed she would be able to do from home while caring for her mother – she went back for a second associate's degree. She later found she lacked the work experience in that field and decided to return to nursing. She started nursing school and completed the LPN portion in 2012.

"You know what you call three associate's degrees? You still call them three associate's degrees," she said playfully. "It should add up to at least a bachelor's."

As she began to pursue her RN, she found her heart was constantly racing. Doctors determined the issue wasn't in her heart but in her lungs, and she was diagnosed with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis.

"When I was diagnosed with this, my doctor told me I can't take care of sick people," she said.

The medicine she must take significantly hinders her immune system, making her presence in hospitals and clinics detrimental to her own health.

After her diagnosis, she delivered The Herald-Whig for a time but quit after an injury prevented her from driving. Three days later, while thumbing through the classifieds, she found an ad from Vatterott for an instructor position.

She was sporting silver hair, her oxygen mask and an unrelenting upbeat attitude the first time she entered the building. She chuckles when considering the impression she must have made. It didn't take long for her to settle in though.

She refers to the primarily-female students she has taught over the years as "her girls."

"I have an appreciation for the fact they're trying to get a better handle on their life," she said. "They want to do better for themselves and their children."

Now 60, she said she will not be going back for any more schooling – probably.

"I can't take care of sick people," she said, "but I'm training others to take care of sick people."

Staff Writer Matt Dutton will bring you a story detailing the life of a local resident each Monday.