Healing Hands

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The scrubs are brighter and the little white hats have been done away with. But as much as things have changed, the world will always need nurses.

Julia M. Dendinger-News-Bulletin photo: Patiently waiting for nursing students, these three anatomically correct medical mannequins can mimic a variety of symptoms — from a wheezing cough to a full-blown cardiac event. They are just some of the technology students enrolled in the University of New Mexico-Valencia Campus’ associates degree nursing program have access to during their studies.

This spring, the University of New Mexico-Valencia Campus will be helping fill that need when it graduates its first cohort from its associates degree nursing program.

In 2009, the school received a $1.38 million Department of Labor grant to establish the two-year nursing degree program.

While the grant has run it’s course, the program is getting its legs under it and going strong.

John Austin, the director of nursing education at UNM-VC, said he is extremely proud of the hard work and dedication the students have exhibited in this, the first part of their journey to becoming nurses.

The class started out with 20 students in 2010 and has dwindled to 11. After they finish this semester, they will all take the National Council Licensure Examination.

According to the National Council of State Boards of Nursing website, the purpose of the test is to “ensure public protection” by requiring candidates for licensure to pass an examination that measures the competencies needed to perform safely and effectively as a newly licensed, entry-level nurse.

If they pass, they will be officially “pinned” on May 10 and move on to the next phase of their education.

“This is just the beginning for them,” Austin said. “To work in a hospital, you have to have the four-year bachelor’s of nursing.”

But UNM-VC students will have an edge, since the NCLEX is the same for two-year and four-students.

“This is an incredibly compressed program. There isn’t any refresher,” Austin said of the four semesters. “One thing people need to remember about nursing programs is that our allegiance is to our future patients.”

While most college students can get away with retaking classes to boost their grade point average, Austin says in nursing, that usually points to a student who isn’t a good candidate for the program.

“If you have to take chemistry four times to get the grade to enter the program, maybe this isn’t for you,” he said. “We do everything we can to help students succeed. But if you don’t meet the qualifications and pass the NCLEX, we can’t let you loose on the public.

“I have a lot of faith and confidence in this class. They have had a lot of academic and clinical success,” he said. “I tell them one of the great things is that they are the first class. But they are also the first class. They are kind of our guinea pigs.”

Guinea pigs or not, the students say they are glad they took up the challenge of being the “first” and are looking forward to careers in health care.

Beth Jollie says when she needed to leave Seattle six years ago, she literally closed her eyes and pointed to a place on the map. That place was Los Lunas.

“It worked out so well. This has changed my life,” Jollie said.

Jollie, a single mother of two boys, 19 and 7, said she’s had “100 jobs” in her life, everything from an EMT to a bartender.

“I needed to settle down and have a career. As a single mom, I have to have a career that will let me take care of my boys,” she said. “I wanted to show them the value of education, so I needed to do it by example.”

Jollie said nursing fit her needs because of the good income and flexible hours.

“Nursing is a good career. You just can’t be the hot bartender anymore in your 40s,” she joked.

Jollie went back to school at 46 years old, and now, at 49, she is the oldest student in the UNM-VC nursing program.

Remembering her experiences in high school and college, Jollie said she was worried studying would be a struggle.

“I thought I would have a big gap in my education,” she said. “But I think when you go back as an older student, you are more settled and focused.”

One thing Jollie said she definitely struggled with was lack of sleep. She worked 12 hour shifts on weekends, studying and doing homework after school during the week and after church on Sundays.

“My youngest son is young enough he doesn’t have a lot of homework,” Jollie said. “I regret that I don’t have time to read books to him. I barely have time to read my books. But I think this will pay off in the end.”

After she finishes the program at UNM-VC and passes the NCLEX, Jollie says she plans to be a life-flight nurse.

“I used to work on an ambulance in downtown Seattle. I like the trauma and ER,” she said. “It will take me about five years to get where I want, but I can reach it one step at a time.”

Being part of the program has required Jollie to accept not necessarily failure, but her limitations. Coming in as a student who had easily gotten high marks in the past, Jollie said she fully expected to get straight As as a nursing student.

“I would study, study, study and it got to the point where to be a nurse, you just want to pass. You’re grateful for anything above 80 (percent),” she laughs. “The class’s unofficial motto has become ‘C means nurse.’”

Jollie encouraged potential nursing students to look into the program at UNM-VC. She said over the last two years, this first cohort of students has bonded exceptionally well.

“We really push each other and support each other,” she said. “It’s not as competitive as the bigger classes. They can be really cut-throat.”

Another benefit to the local program is the lack of a waiting list, Jollie said. She and friends were on the waiting list for CNM in Albuquerque when she heard about the program at the Valencia Campus.

“I put in my application and got in,” she said. “I’m finishing in May and some of my friends at CNM are a couple of semesters behind me.”

Jollie said the more “laid back” atmosphere of the campus helped make the program more inviting.

“You can go into the director’s office and talk to him about anything — your favorite sports team,” she said. “It’s not as strict as going to main campus.”

While Jollie is completing the nursing program, she said UNM-VC offers a wide gamut of other health care fields training opportunities.

“They have the EMT classes, phlebotomy, medication aid,” she said. “They are putting out a lot of students in health care. A lot of jobs are being filled by students from the VC.”

Jollie’s fellow nursing student, Carolyn Baca of Belen, decided to enter the program because of her current job as a medication aid at Belen Meadows.

“I love the residents. That’s where my passion comes from,” Baca said. “I want to be able to do more. The nurses there do everything they can, but sometimes there isn’t enough of them to fill the need.”

Baca, a mother of three boys, ages 3, 5 and 9, said studying to be a nurse was “probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Last semester was a breaking point for everybody.

“We did the pediatrics, medical/surgical and maternal health units in the same semester. The maternal health should have been by itself. It was overwhelming. Now they have separate classes. We were kind of trial and error for them.”

Baca said during the third semester of study was when she and the other students really began feeling the pressure.

“I think that was the hardest four weeks,” she said. “You have to concentrate on all this stuff. There’s a program to help us with the exam but you have to find time to use it. And if you don’t pass the NCLEX, then you’ve failed all four semesters.”

Even though she hasn’t been pinned quite yet, Baca said she is already looking into online classes at UNM to work towards her master’s in nursing. She said she would love to teach some day, but at this point, she needs to go out and work in the field to get a good understanding of her profession.

“It’s kind of scarey. We have to know all this,” she said. “We question ourselves.”

With three small children, Baca said the pediatrics rotation was very difficult and a speciality she won’t pursue.

“I want to work in trauma or ICU. I like geriatrics. I like where I work, love my work,” she said. “People think places like that are sad, but it’s just hard work.”

And the hard work of becoming a nurse has been made a little easier thanks to her classmates, Baca said.

“We’ve stuck together through yelling, screaming and crying. We have really bonded,” she said. “We have done well as a group. It’s really sad to leave, but it’s a good thing. We’re going out there to do good.”


-- Email the author at jdendinger@news-bulletin.com.