From the coal mines to respiratory care

Former coal miner Shawn Rigney (center) is now a clinical instructor at his alma mater, Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College, where he shares his knowledge with respiratory care students such as Angela Mills and Dillan Napier. (Photo: SKCTC)

On March 31, 2015, fourth-generation coal miner Shawn Rigney found himself at a crossroads.

For 11 years, he had worked for a local surface mining company, first as a loader and dozer operator, and eventually as a safety director. When the company went bankrupt, operations continued until the company was able to find a buyer, but on February 13, the company suffered a substantial layoff.

Every Friday from then on, one or two employees were let go. For Shawn, that day came on a Tuesday.

When the new company suggested that he might be able to return to his former position, he vowed to wait only four weeks. The call never came, so Rigney enrolled in classes on the Harlan Campus of Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College.

While he enrolled in college classes full time, the Harlan County Community Action Agency and Workforce Innovative Opportunity program paid him a monthly stipend. Meanwhile, his wife, Heather, still maintained her full-time job in housekeeping at ARH. When asked how he coped with losing his job and going back to school, he admits it wasn’t always easy.

“It seems at first that it’s impossible to lose more than half your wages, but you have to adjust. My wife and I were discouraged a lot and felt we couldn’t make it on what I was making. I always tell everybody that I really relied on God a lot through my process of getting through school,” he said.

A good fit

Once at Southeast, Shawn considered nursing, but he was accepted into respiratory care first.

“Respiratory gave me the first opportunity, so I felt like that’s what God wanted,” he said.

At a pre-admission conference at the Harlan Center, he spoke briefly to professor and clinical coordinator Margie Huff, who has since retired. After that conversation, Rigney knew the program was right for him.

“I was sure. I felt that she really cared about us. I was really pleased with all of my instructors,” he said.

After he earned his respiratory care degree in spring 2018, another coal company offered him a job. He accepted, but with one caveat.

“I told them upfront I would leave there when I got a job at Harlan ARH,” Rigney said.

He returned to coal mining for eight months until a position opened in his chosen field. He has been full time with ARH as a respiratory therapist since January 2019. This semester, he began teaching part-time for Southeast as a clinical instructor.

“I love it,” he said. “I was always a mine instructor — MET classes, foreman retraining, CPR — so I was used to doing that type of work. I really enjoy having students.”

An advocate for education

Shawn, Heather and their 17-year-old son, Caleb, live in Ages, which for the couple is a 10-minute drive to work. They live on a hill close to his sister, grandmother, parents and many other relatives.

“Almost everybody up here is kin to me,” he said.

When asked what advice he would give to others in his situation, he does not hesitate.

“Coal mining is a business going down fast. Everybody I talk to, I tell them get an education. That doesn’t mean you have to leave Harlan. I urge people to go into the medical field. There is always a need for nurses, radiologists, physical therapist assistants — programs people can get into and stay right here at home.”

Shawn Rigney may have started a new family tradition: Caleb aspires to become a pharmacist.

About the Author

Amy Simpson
is director of communications and public relations at Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College.