Program puts students on the fast track to nursing

July 24, 2005|By Sandy Alexander | Sandy Alexander,SUN STAFF

Linda Olson, 43, first considered becoming a nurse 20 years ago. Sheree Ung, 50, chose nursing as her third career. And Beth Talbot-Sanders, 58, came to nursing by way of the Peace Corps, teaching and human resources.

Although it took the women a while to pursue nursing careers, the three completed their registered-nurse studies in record time as part of the first class of Howard Community College's accelerated nursing program.

Eleven students, chosen for their strong academic credentials, completed the RN program in 11 months by working through summer, winter and spring breaks.

"You are completely immersed from day one," Olson said. "The first week we were at a clinical site. ... It was intense."

"The key element - and so I keep saying it - is to assure people it is a duplicate of the traditional program," said Sharon J. Pierce, director of nursing at HCC.

"They worked really hard," Pierce said. "They really developed into a cohesive learning community, and that was critical to their success."

The students will celebrate at a graduation ceremony Thursday. Over the next couple of months, they will take the state certification exam to become licensed RNs.

A significant need for nurses - particularly RNs - has led many Maryland schools to increase the capacity of their nursing programs.

According to a 2003 report by the Center for Health Workforce Development at the University of Maryland, the state had a shortage of 3,000 registered nurses that year.

By 2012, it projects, 62,333 will be needed. Without an increase in the supply, the shortage would reach 17,000 RNs that year, the report projects.

Two- and four-year nursing programs have hundreds more applicants than they can accommodate. After the traditional RN program at HCC was filled for this year's fall term, 140 qualified applicants remained on the waiting list.

Accelerated programs are one strategy being used. Accelerated RN programs are just starting to appear at community colleges.

Olsen, an Ellicott City resident, said she was attracted to the accelerated program because it seemed more manageable to focus intently on school for one year than to juggle part-time classes, part-time work and a family for two years.

She considered switching to nursing while at Catholic University in the 1980s but couldn't afford it.

She later earned her master's degree in heath care administration and worked on quality-assurance programs for Greater Southeast Community Hospital's Center for the Aging.

"I realized I had really missed out. ... I was in the business end. I really like the people end," she said.

She took 2 1/2 years of prerequisites at HCC, during which she became friends with Ung and Talbot-Sanders. The three decided to tackle the accelerated program together.

"There was really no down time whatsoever between lecture, the reading, two clinical days plus the time that needed to be spent in the skills lab," Olson said.

"One of the things that worked out well for me is that we don't have those large breaks to forget stuff. It is constantly used and reinforced."

Ung, who lives in Ellicott City, had been an attorney. The nursing program was more difficult than law school, she said.

"It was a lot of information to assimilate very quickly and then apply immediately," she said.

Ung said she first thought about nursing when she was impressed with nurses caring for her twin sons, now 11, when they were in neonatal intensive care.

She stopped practicing law in 1999 after moving to Maryland and spent several years at home with her children. She then decided to give nursing a try.

"I find it more personally satisfying," she said. "I think that it's a much better personality fit for myself to be able to help others in a way that truly can be life altering."

Ung plans to work in a neonatal intensive care unit. "It's a chance to satisfy my need for a baby fix every so often."

Talbot-Sanders, a Columbia resident, considered becoming a nurse after several careers, culminating with a position as human resources director for a Johns Hopkins program that teaches maternal and neonatal care in developing countries.

Ultimately, she said, she would like to work in a hospice.

She agreed with her classmates that the workload was daunting but added, "The saving grace for me in this whole thing has been the group of students in the program ... the motivation of the people there."

Like others in the program, she said support from her family made it possible for her to tackle the program.

"One weekend of every month I was able to spend with my family," said Talbot-Sanders, whose husband took the lead in caring for their 6-year-old daughter. "It isn't for anybody who wants to have a life."

Support also came from the friendship she formed with Olson and Ung.

The three women studied together often. They made early morning calls to make sure the others were awake and practiced basic skills on each other.

"A lot of what we really did for each other was keep us on track and let us let off a little steam and laugh," Talbot-Sanders said.

"I have spent more time with them this year than I have my family," Olson said.

"It's hard to keep that level of motivation going at that intensity for a full year," she said. "It seems like when one of us was starting to drag our heels the others would pull her along."

The women said they are looking forward to graduation, but they still have plenty of studying ahead of them for the licensing exam.

"We have all decided we're going to have our celebration after we pass the boards in September," she said. "Then it will be really over."

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