First aid for nursing field

Crisis: Howard Community College hopes to meet profession's increasing demand with accessible night and weekend classes.

May 12, 2000|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

Employers started calling Terri Schreyer months before graduation, relentlessly, until she finally stopped answering her telephone.

The Howard Community College student had picked a profession that's in high demand -- nursing.

A shortage of nurses statewide has left hospitals, assisted-living facilities and other health care agencies struggling to fill positions. The situation is expected to worsen because enrollment in nursing schools has dropped and the number of licensed nurses has declined, even as the jobs for nurses have increased. The average age of practicing nurses in Maryland is 46, according to the Maryland Board of Nursing.

Calling it a crisis, the state is convening a commission to study the issue and make recommendations.

HCC officials think that they're ahead of the curve.

The school is one of the few colleges in Maryland where students can study nursing entirely in the evenings and on weekends. Designed to attract working adults, HCC's after-hours program started in 1992.

Students can opt for daytime classes, too. But the night option draws people -- some from outside the county -- who work full time and wouldn't be able to enter the nursing profession any other way.

HCC administrators also are opening spaces in a course this summer that prepares students for the licensed practical nurse exam. Instructors figure that will get more people into nursing jobs quickly -- including students who plan to study an extra year for the more comprehensive registered nurse license.

Emily Slunt, chairwoman of HCC's health sciences division and director of the nursing education program, says administrators are trying to think creatively to address the shortage. She's also hoping to recruit more people out of high school -- the average nursing student at HCC is 28 -- and is working with the Howard County public school system.

Donna Dorsey, executive director of the Maryland Board of Nursing, said she welcomes anything colleges can do to attract more people to the field.

"If we can't get students into the education programs, we're not going to have more nurses," she said.

Part of the reason that there's a nursing shortage is that opportunities for nurses are growing, Dorsey said.

They can be found in management as well as emergency care. Nurses help the terminally ill in hospices, babies in pediatric units, patients in psychiatric centers and doctors in dealing with insurance regulations. Nurses also are doing research on topics ranging from prevention techniques to health education, Slunt said.

"They're very marketable in a variety of settings," said Slunt, who's getting an increasing number of calls from people trying to recruit HCC nursing majors.

"People will wine and dine us, trying to get our graduates to consider their agency," she joked.

About 75 percent of the HCC students graduating next week -- students who have to pass their registered-nurse exams -- have jobs, the nursing staff estimates. That's compared with about 25 percent several years ago.

Many of the students who don't have nursing jobs lined up are holding off because they want to pass the licensure exam first, Slunt said.

Schreyer, president of HCC's nursing club, starts in July at Johns Hopkins Hospital, her first choice. She landed the position in January.

She's lost track of how many hospitals tried to recruit her -- but the number astounded her.

"After a while, I didn't even answer the phone," said Schreyer, 42, who has a bachelor's degree in psychology and spent years in the mental health field. "It's unbelievable. I have never been sought like this, never."

Sixty-two nursing students are expected to graduate Thursday. This week, before final exams, they received one last preparation for the job: an unannounced emergency.

Entering a nursing lab in small groups for a role-playing assignment, students were told that they were new hires at the "HCC medical intensive care unit" and would be introduced to procedures and protocols.

Instead, they had to deal with a simulated cardiac arrest, courtesy of a lifelike manikin.

Shady Grove Hospital nurse Christine Wyrsch shouted instructions as students scurried about in the small patient room, giving the patient oxygen, giving him medicine intravenously, checking his pulse and trying to restart his heart.

Ellicott City residents Jerrilynn Boone and Jay Pantke teamed, alternating between mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and cardiopulmonary resuscitation.

"Do we have a rhythm? Do we have a pulse?" Wyrsch yelled over the cacophony, defibrillators in hand.

A consulting instructor for HCC, she said the drill will help students stay calm when they're faced with an emergency.

"Once it really happens, it's very, very frightening for a new graduate," she said. "My first cardiac arrest, I was petrified."

Graduating can be nerve-wracking, too, said Regina McClune, HCC's nursing laboratory manager. But she's finding that the nursing shortage has tempered the normal element of the unknown. Most students know where they're going and what they'll be doing.

"It's really making these last couple of weeks enjoyable for them," she said.

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