The two-year wait to enter a Maricopa County nursing program frustrated Tom Ammerman. The 55-year-old weighed his options and decided the 98-mile drive each way from his Valley home to Gila County was preferable to an exasperating wait.
“Driving 700 miles a week is a lot,” Ammerman acknowledged, but he said the cost of Gila Community College tuition plus gas is still cheaper than paying Maricopa County tuition.
In addition to the time-cost benefit of the seven months he waited to enter the program instead of two years, Ammer-man said that GCC’s teacher-to-student ratio is lower than Maricopa County’s.
More teacher interaction equates to a more personalized and interactive education, Ammerman said.
In the Valley, “I was very much a number that was being processed,” he said. In Payson, “if I need help — Jill, what’s up,” Ammerman said of nursing instructor Jill Uptain.
Gila County’s first nursing class of six students graduated in the spring of 2007. This semester, for the first time, all four blocks are running, which means two classes of six students will graduate each year.
Students are required to take four one-semester blocks to receive an Associate of Applied Science Degree. Then, they must pass a national nursing standards test before entering the field.
“There’s a high interest and a high need,” said Dr. Roni DeLaO Kerns, GCC’s new nursing instructor. From her office near the front desk in GCC’s administration building, Kerns said she constantly hears students ask what classes they need to gain admission into the nursing program.
(Students need an introduction-level chemistry class, psychology class, and the first two levels of human anatomy and physiology. They also need to become certified nursing assistants.)
Rural nurses, Kerns said, are renaissance nurses. “They need to be able to do a little bit of everything.”
Nurses-in-training say they enjoy the variety. “It’s not repetitive,” said student Jocelyn Hamilton.
Rural nursing programs not only provide job training opportunities, they help satiate chronic nursing shortages.
“If you have a local nursing program and (students) can be educated in the community, they will stay in the community,” Kerns said.
The nursing program at Eastern Arizona College has proven so successful that the medical community in Thatcher, where the college is located, has no problem finding nurses. Kerns has also worked with EAC’s nursing program.
However, even if a student can’t find a job in her hometown, she will undoubtedly procure placement in the Valley, or wherever else she chooses to search, Kerns said. Nurses are also heavily recruited.
Some beginning nurses — as well as members of the general public — believe nurses exist to assist doctors. Kerns profoundly dislikes that belief.
“That’s not what we teach,” she said. “We think on our own.” Nurses work in hospitals, prisons, airplanes, in home health, and in public health systems.
Nurses can travel around the country or around the world. Nurses save lives.
“We take care of the whole patient. It’s not just their physical body,” Kerns said. A nurse heals a person’s spirit, his soul. “If you’ve fixed the body but you haven’t fixed the spirit, you’ve lost the patient.”
Last week, in Uptain’s class, Ammerman described his steps as he removed a tube from a mannequin’s throat.
“I’ve checked his name badge so I know who he is,” Ammerman said. “We’re ready.” He maneuvers the tube out, noting that patients do sometimes gag. “It usually comes out fairly smooth,” Ammerman said. “I try to get it out of there as quickly as possible.”
Uptain says nurses check name badges to make sure procedures are performed on the correct patient. Nurses are also encouraged to describe their actions to patients.
The monologue develops rapport, and allows patients a modicum of familiarity in the complicated and scary world of medical procedures in which they have no control.
Uptain later showed students how to change a central line dressing. Central lines lead to the heart, and nurses must clean the dressings every three days depending upon hospital policy.
“It is not a doctor’s order,” Uptain told her students. The procedure is another thing nurses must remember to do. Both patient and nurse must wear masks to cover the breath.
“Patients like to look at it — ‘Oh cool’ — and they’re breathing all over it,” Uptain said.
“If the patient gets an infection, you’re responsible,” she reminded her students.
The nurses-in-training interviewed in Uptain’s class said they didn’t know what else to be if not a nurse.
Kyndra Conlon said her mother was a nurse, as was her grandmother.
Renee Hardy said, “guts, puss. Even as a kid, that stuff always fascinated me.”
The adrenaline and constant variety also draws. “At the hospital, you can try and have a timeline,” said Erica Overton. Then emergency strikes and it’s show time.
The difficulty of the job — the stress, the long hours, makes for a high attrition rate. According to Kerns, roughly half of nursing graduates tire of the occupation within two years.
At that point, a job selling real estate might peak an exhausted nurse’s interest.
But for nurses attracted by the adrenaline rush of dealing with mortality, the satisfaction of saving a life will forever beat the rush of anything else.