School's closing keeps dream on hold for some Nursing: One last class is able to knock off obstacles of time, money, distance to achieve professional goal.

October 21, 1997|By Diana K. Sugg | Diana K. Sugg,SUN STAFF

They were bank tellers and hairdressers, single moms and high school dropouts who wanted more. They didn't have the time or the money, and they didn't know if they were smart enough. But before it was too late, they decided to go for it, to claim their long-held wish to be nurses.

Over the past 30 years, hundreds made their way to Union Memorial Hospital's Johnston School of Practical Nursing, where students could attend every class at night or on the weekend. One by one, more than 1,000 have triumphed and earned the uniform, the title, the professional position.

But the revolution rocking the country's health care system has left nothing untouched. Union Memorial could no longer afford the $1 million annual cost to run the Johnston School, which graduated its last class in July, and its 107-year-old counterpart that trains registered nurses. Nationwide, hospital-based nursing schools have been shutting down, as the profession has moved to standardize its education in community colleges and universities.

The unintended consequence is the loss of a place that nurtured timid souls and trained about 27 percent of the state's licensed practical nurses, half of whom went on to become RNs.

"We tried to help them in any way we could to succeed," said Helen L. Mosher assistant director of the school. Late last week, the rocking chair that helped her soothe many a frazzled student was moved out of her office as she prepared to retire. "There won't be any way for these people who want to better themselves to go to school, because the part time won't be available."

While some students can manage to work evenings and take the day classes offered part time by some schools, most said they needed to attend school exclusively on nights and weekends. Johnston consistently had a two-year waiting list. There are also long waiting lists for Howard Community College and Wor-Wic Community College in Salisbury, the only other nursing schools -- out of 26 in Maryland -- to offer an evening and weekend track.

Given the apparent demand, two committees at the Community Colleges of Baltimore County are weighing whether to adopt a part-time program for LPNs, perhaps incorporating some elements from the closed Johnston School. As for the RN program, it's being gradually transferred to Villa Julie College.

Meanwhile, employers and educators nationwide are struggling to match training to the needs of a changed health care system. Maryland is grappling with that issue, using a three-year grant to analyze the state's nursing needs.

A big piece is already clear: With more and more care moving out to the community, hospitals are tapped for only the sickest patients. Training nurses in hospitals isn't practical anymore, and this proud tradition is dying. The number of schools has dropped from more than 1,000 in the 1940s to about 125 today.

Popularity never dimmed

Still, these factors never dimmed the popularity of the Johnston School. And one by one, people who had the dream managed to knock off obstacles: time, money, distance.

Terry Porter, 33, drove 90 minutes each way from Calvert County to Baltimore. Kathleen Kirby, 34, gave birth to her sixth child, then started school eight weeks later. Julia Wise, 39, conquered her fear of taking tests. Beatrice Harps called Mosher every day to see if a spot would open up.

"I was on pins and needles," said Harps, 39, who had stopped her nursing education years ago because of her three sons and her husband's career. "I told Mrs. Mosher, 'I know I'll make a good nurse. I really believe this is my calling.' "

Others, who had dropped out of high school, earned their GEDs so they could enroll. Some broke away from abusive boyfriends or were determined to get off welfare. Their average age was 36, although some students were in their 60s.

Together, they endured four-hour classroom sessions two nights week for two years. They spent every other weekend in clinical training in the hospital, eight hours each on Saturday and Sunday. Their hands trembled as they administered their first intramuscular shot -- on patients' backsides. On the day of their first assignment on the "med-surg" floor, they were too nervous to eat breakfast.

On top of full-time jobs and families, their studies wore on them. Some were on the verge of quitting until Mosher ushered them into her office, where they had a chance to vent while rocking in the chair and helping themselves to her jar of hard candy.

Every once in a while, when a student couldn't afford to pay a gas or electric bill, the school tapped its emergency fund.

And when the students collectively seemed on overload, instructor Kathleen Stilling pulled out her worn copy of the children's story "The Little Engine That Could." She read aloud, describing the little blue engine which, by sheer will and perseverance, chugs over a huge hill.

Stilling also kept a small plastic model of the engine on her desk. When squeezed, the toy called out: "I think I can, I think I can "

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