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Nursing the Career for a Lifetime

UAMS nursing students practice surgical room techniques in state-of-the-art surroundings.

Nursing is a lot of things: demanding, rewarding, exhausting, fulfilling. It’s reassuring a frightened child, sharing a family’s joy and pain, a friendly smile during late-night rounds and heart-pounding adrenaline of emergency room care.

Nurses are the backbone of our health care system and a vocation that provides a multitude of professional options and opportunities from traveling the globe to teaching the next generation, right here in Arkansas.

“Nursing is the best career to choose if you like variety, flexibility and a chance to do so many exciting things in life,” said Cheryl J. Washington, EdD, MsED, BSN, RNC-OB, advanced practice partner L&D Triage with UAMS. “What other profession will allow you to become a military officer and experience a double career, travel to foreign countries, care for patients and meet so many new friends and still have time for other things? 

“I came back to nursing, retrained and am now serving in a leadership role. My life has been full and fulfilling. If I had to do it again, I’d still choose nursing as my first career.”

There’s room for everyone and then some, given the critical shortage of nurses created by the expanding number of seniors in American society.

“The shortage of perioperative nurses is being driven by a variety of factors,” said Renee Lawrence, advanced practice partner with UAMS. “First, the average age of the working nurse is around 50, and surgical nurses are even older, probably around 55 or older. As Baby Boomers enter retirement, the shortage is expected to grow significantly.”

“The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts the shortage to grow to over 500,000 by 2022, just to replace retiring nursing and account for the increase in health care access across the nation,” said Ashley York, BSN, RN, a member of the RN faculty at National Park College in Hot Springs.

York said the issue isn’t necessarily that nursing colleges aren’t recruiting enough students, in fact they are, but the ability to educate all of those candidates and direct them into areas of greatest need is often a challenge in itself.

“Nursing programs struggle to accommodate larger enrollment numbers, and face barriers related to a shortage of qualified nurse educators,” she said. “Health care and educational organizations are responding to the shortages by implementing innovative technologies to assist in increasing faculty and nursing capacities.”

Given this situation, it’s not surprising that nurse educators are among those specialties in high demand right now, along with some areas of need that seem to linger year in and year out.

“Nurse educators are in highest demand at this time due to the nursing shortage. Nursing is one of the top five fastest-growing occupations in the U.S., and qualified applicants for nursing programs are being turned away due to a shortage of qualified nurse educators,” said Kelly Quinn, MSN, RN, clinical instructor at the University of Central Arkansas School of Nursing.

“Small rural health care facilities have the biggest need for nurses. The reason behind the need is not pay inequality, as some would presume, but due to nursing programs not being widely dispersed geographically, especially at the baccalaureate level.”

Another high-demand specialty within nursing is the relatively new nursing informatics field.

“Nursing informatics is an up-and-coming field that is in high demand,” York said. “The Association of Perioperative Nursing defines nursing informatics as ‘the use of information and computer technology to support all aspects of nursing practice, including direct delivery of care, administration, education and research.’ With the sky as the limit in technological advances, every health care and educational institute is going to need a nurse or two adequately prepared in nursing technology.”

Other strategies that the industry is leveraging to try and fill needs in the field is luring people from other careers to make the switch to nursing, providing incentives to existing nurses to stay in the field past retirement age, or both. There has also been a push for more minority students, to keep pace with the changing demographics within the state.

And, as with all high-demand skills, compensation has become a critical element in attracting top talent, resulting in better pay and benefits.

Cutting edge instruction meets personal attention at University of Arkansas Little Rock

“The nursing shortage has helped to create fierce competition for nurses. If the hospital across town is offering more money or a large sign-on bonus, it will attract applicants,” Renee Lawrence said, noting many institutions will now provide tuition assistance or student loan payback.

“However, once they have been recruited, retention is the real challenge. Nurses, especially younger ones, do not tend to stay in the same place like they used to.”



To all outward appearances, Elvis Opris is not unlike any other first-year BSN student at UAMS College of Nursing. Look a little below the surface, however, and things look radically different.

Not only did Opris grow up in Romania, but he was a successful general contractor, shepherd and beekeeper in central Arkansas before enrolling in nursing school.

“I was influenced by a mentor to consider nursing as a career, something I had never considered,” he said. “I never really considered a career change that would include additional schooling, mainly because I had already finished my bachelor’s degree as an ESL student, and the prospect of more school with a family including three small children seemed unattainable.”

Opris is one of a growing number of nursing students who are entering the field after having experienced life in other professions. Opris’ classmate, first-year BSN student Patrick Dunlap, came to the program after 24 years of active duty service in the U.S. Air Force.

“I wanted to continue to be able to help people and be productive after my time in the service,” he said. “Nursing has been a lifelong interest of mine and seems to be the perfect way to fulfill both of these. My mother was an LPN and would often comment on how helping others through nursing gave her a great deal of personal satisfaction and sense of purpose.”

Dunlap’s motivation for getting into the field — a desire to serve others — is common among this class of student. So is the struggle to get back into the swing of classroom education.

“The hardest adjustment for me, so far, is simply being back in school full time. Education is hard work, to say the least,” Dunlap said. “I did not have any college credit and had to start at the beginning just like anyone else coming out of high school. It wasn’t always easy being the 43-year-old freshman, but finishing that first year was a huge confidence boost.”

The influx of second-career nursing students, many of them older and having not set foot in a classroom for decades, has led many nursing schools to introduce accelerated nurse education programs, which enable students to earn a baccalaureate degree in 12 to 18 months and a master’s degree in two to three years, according to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Even with these assists, many second-career students endure a substantial culture shock in the transition.

J. Denham-Turner, BSN, RN and post BSN-DNP student at UAMS College of Nursing, came to nursing after 27 years as an attorney with a desire to create something lasting through his work. He found a challenge as substantial as any courtroom adversary.

“I no longer fit into a category of people with similar experiences. So, essentially I walked alone,” he said. “Most of the people in my nursing studies were 30 years younger than me, usually. I could make friends, and I did however, the wealth of comaraderie that same-generational relationships have was lost forever to me.”

“Being older also made me feel incompetent more often when I did not understand how to do something. I went from being at the peak of my career intellect-wise, to being at the bottom of a new career. If I did not have a very strong faith, I do not know if I could have endured.”

Suzanne Harris, director of medical/surgical and specialty services at Conway Regional Medical Center, was also surprised by the personal impact of her new calling. She came to nursing after nearly a decade as a high school English teacher.

“The hardest adjustment is also one of the most rewarding parts of being a nurse: Being a nurse never stops,” she said. “Nursing isn’t a job that one leaves when she walks out of the building. A nurse carries the job with her everywhere she goes. She carries it when she sees others that she has had the privilege of taking care of and celebrates their recovery, she carries it when she mourns the loss of a patient who has lost his or her battle.”

“The hardest adjustment is accepting the blessing of a career that will forever be a part of one’s life, long after retirement. My previous life has served me by teaching me patience, organization, people skills and perseverance. Both of my careers have been about helping and serving others, and there are pieces of teaching that I use every day as a nurse.”



For all the physical, mental and emotional energy it takes to be successful in nursing, it would seem that most longtimers would welcome the opportunity to step out at retirement age and take it easy.

[IMage3]However, the nursing shortage experienced by most hospitals and health systems has created unparalleled need for nurses. As a result, many are staying on the job longer either due to commitment to the craft or because they find it necessary to work.

“There are so many learning opportunities in nursing; so many wonderful experiences that can enrich your life while you are helping others,” said Michelle Newton MSN, RN, with Jefferson Regional Medical Center. “This profession can be tough sometimes, but at the end of the day I am so glad I am a nurse.”

The American Nurses Association reported in 2014 that 53 percent of the nurses in the workforce were age 50 or older, so it’s not hard to see why hospitals, clinics and doctors offices have a vested interest in retaining those workers for as long as possible. Depending on the employer, this may include providing shift flexibility, additional training and opportunities in different areas. 

Newton is a prime example; after 31 years in the profession, she’s now the incoming director of Jefferson Regional Medical Center School of Nursing.

“When I was younger, I was full of energy and always in a hurry,” she said. “I loved to work all the extra shifts I could. Now after 31 years, I love being productive at a much more measured pace. As I train for a new role as the director of the JRMC School of Nursing, I enjoy the clinical days with the students but am glad they are not 12-hour shifts, three or four times a week.”

Lori Reynolds, cancer program outreach coordinator with Conway Regional Health Center, said while reduced hours have been helpful, her workload hasn’t lessened any over the 23 years she’s been in the profession.

“I have a lot more responsibility now and things are much more regimented than when I was young,” she said. “I worked four 10-hour days and now I have decreased to four nine-hour days, and this helps. I have had wonderful opportunity to work in many areas of the medical center and I have had great opportunity to be a life-long learner in nursing.”

Some nurses have found that a change in scenery has allowed them to stay in the profession longer. Stephanie Thompson, MNSc, APRN, FNP-BC, a nurse practitioner and student at UAMS College of Nursing, has worked in various settings over the past 18 years, according to the demands of home and family.

“When I was first working as an LPN, I was working 40-plus hours a week, had a baby and was beginning to take classes for RN school,” she said. “With each job role change, the responsibilities and the stress changed. Life and work experience have allowed me to grow into each job role.

“Now I am working 40 hours a week in a busy family practice clinic where I see patients Monday through Friday. As I have grown older, I am thankful that I am working in a local clinic so that I am not commuting twice a day.”

Other longtimers report the same hours and, if not more responsibilities, certainly more challenges with the encroachment of technology into the modern health care workplace. Gayle Haushahn, RN, with UAMS is a prime example. She still works 12-hour shifts three days per week, but the substance of her work has changed dramatically due to technology.

“It has been a challenge to keep up with technological changes,” she said. “When I entered the nursing profession everything was documented on paper. The younger generation of nurses are much more computer-savvy, for sure. Personally, I ask plenty of questions from those nurses who are computer experts and do not hesitate to ask for assistance when I need it.”

But by far the most compelling reason many longtime nurses stay on the job is the commitment to their calling in life, to serve others and to play a role in the healing process. Helen McLennon, RN, is in her 41st year of nursing, a career that has spanned two continents beginning in her native Great Britain and follows a long line of nurses in her family.

“My work life might have changed only in that I do not do as many hours doing nursing as I did before when I worked more overtime.” she said. “I moved to Little Rock in 1990 and worked at Arkansas Children’s Hospital ever since. At first I worked on the Psychiatric Unit, then when that closed I moved to the Burn Unit.”

“I have enjoyed working on the Burn Unit as I see patients who move from being near death’s door to being able to walk out of the unit. I have always enjoyed being a nurse from the day I started.”

Even so, McLennon credits some sound coping strategies as key to her longevity in her profession.

“During my working life I tried to stay fit and emotionally healthy by trying to separate my working life and family life,” she said. “When I leave work, I leave those problems inside the door and when I get back to work I leave my other life outside the door.”



—By Dwain Hebda

Nursing Notes

“Find sources for enthusiasm and seek out self-care techniques that work for you. Construct 1-year, 5-year and 10-year plans!! Think of nursing as a career, not a job.”

Sheila Stroman, Ph.D., RN, asistant professor
University of Central Arkansas, School of Nursing
Years in Nursing: 40


Sheila Stroman, Ph.D., RN
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