Southeast Helps Coal Miner Forge New Path in Allied Health | SKCTC

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Southeast Helps Coal Miner Forge New Path in Allied Health

Harlan, KY — 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.

Southeast clinical instructor and former coal miner Shawn Rigney (center) enjoys sharing his knowledge with respiratory care students like Angela Mills and Dillan Napier.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 Southeast’s Harlan Campus.

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.

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.”

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 up front I would leave there when I got a job at Harlan ARH,” said Rigney.

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.”

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.

For more information about Southeast’s Respiratory Care Program, contact Wendy Wright at 606-589-3311, or Mike Good at 606-248-2122, For a list of joint pre-admission conference dates, visit our website at or the events section of our Facebook page.