Healing Hands: Nursing degree provides economic wellness and health

Megan Finucane, left, and Katie O’Brien, right, sisters who both work in the Intensive Care Unit at Samaritan Medical Center, pose for a portrait inside an empty patient room at Samaritan. Both went through Jefferson Community College’s nursing program and O’Brien is a nursing instructor at the college.

BY: Norah Machia
The registered nursing degree program at Jefferson Community College has built a strong reputation for helping students enter the profession shortly after graduation, and in many cases, continue their nursing education at higher academic institutions.

     But while earning an advanced nursing degree has been an option in the past for registered nurses, it will now be a requirement, starting with this year’s incoming freshmen class, said Marie A. Hess, interim nursing department chair at JCC.

     They will be the first students to fall under the new requirements of state legislation passed last year. New York state now requires registered nurses to obtain a bachelor’s degree within 10 years after receiving their initial RN license in order to maintain that license.

    The new law will not affect current registered nurses with associate degrees who already hold a New York state license, the chairwoman said. These RNs will be “grandfathered in” regardless of their degree level.

     And it will not affect students currently in their second year of enrollment in the JCC nursing program, who will also be “grandfathered in” under the new regulation.

      Those affected will be the incoming classes this fall at nursing degree programs throughout New York state. After obtaining their RN license with an associate degree, they will have up to ten years to complete their bachelor’s degree.

     “In many cases, they will be able to complete their coursework online, which helps those already working in the field,” said Dr. Hess, who has a doctorate in education degree from Syracuse University.

     Even prior to the passage of the new legislation, referred to as the “BSN in 10” law, the college had already partnered with several higher academic institutions to allow JCC students to transfer “seamlessly” into their registered nursing bachelor degree programs. 

   These partnerships have allowed students to meet prerequisite course requirements and earn their associate degree at JCC, and then complete their junior and senior years in a bachelor’s degree program, and/or continue on for a master’s degree.

    The college has several transfer agreements with higher education institutions for healthcare and other professions through the Jefferson Higher Education Center. JCC has worked with several colleges and universities to bring some of the upper level courses to the Watertown campus. 

    JCC students completing their associate’s RN degree can transfer “seamlessly” into a bachelor’s degree program at SUNY Polytechnic Institute, SUNY Empire State College, Keuka College, Upstate Medical University, Chamberlain College of Nursing, SUNY Delhi and SUNY Plattsburgh. Many of these institutions offer online courses.

   This year’s incoming registered nursing degree class at JCC includes 56 students, while there are 34 students entering their second (and final) year of study for their associate degree in nursing, said Dr. Hess.

     The college also has 22 students enrolled in its weekend nursing degree program, who are scheduled to graduate in December. That program is designed to allow students to complete their associate degree in nursing by taking classes every other weekend, she said. 

      Many of the students completing the weekend program are already working as licensed practical nurses or certified nursing assistants, but want to further their education at JCC, Dr. Hess said.

     Jefferson Community College is accredited by the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing, Inc. The nursing degree curriculum includes courses in adult medical/surgical nursing, maternal/newborn health, pediatrics, psychosocial nursing, professional nursing practice, and pharmacology.

   Jefferson also has an agreement with Jeff-Lewis BOCES, which allows students who graduate from that LPN program the opportunity to have a spot “reserved” in the JCC registered nursing degree program.

      If those LPN students successfully complete the prerequisites within a certain time period, they are guaranteed a slot in Jefferson’s registered nursing program, which “gives them an incentive to enter the program,” Dr. Hess added.

     The majority of clinical rotations are completed at Samaritan Medical Center, which has a strong working relationship with the college, she said. Many JCC graduates have been hired to work at Samaritan right after graduation and have advanced to different positions within that healthcare system.

     The college also works with the Golisano Children’s Hospital at Upstate Medical University for pediatric clinical rotations, and recently started placing students for clinical experience at the St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center, Ogdensburg. Future plans call for students to complete clinical work at Carthage Area Hospital and at Lewis County General Hospital in Lowville, she said.

    “We are constantly working to expand our program and give students exposure to a variety of healthcare settings,” she said.  “Each facility has unique circumstances.”

    There is a shortage of nurses nationwide because “many of the baby boomers who entered this profession are retiring all at once” and the north country is no exception, said Dr. Hess.

     For those who have completed the Jefferson Community College nursing degree, many have found the profession to be both rewarding and challenging.

     Jillian Young Marra had thought about becoming a pharmacist when she graduated from Immaculate Heart Central in 2010, but she decided she wanted a career with more direct patient contact.

     She started coursework in the mathematics and science program at JCC, with a concentration in allied health, and then decided to apply for the college’s registered nursing degree program.

   After graduating in 2013, she was hired by Samaritan Medical Center and started working in the hospital’s maternity unit as a labor and delivery nurse. The clinical rotations she had completed earlier at SMC as a student had helped her decide on that particular unit. 

     Mrs. Young Marra received her bachelor’s degree in nursing from Utica College in 2016, and several months later, enrolled in Upstate Medical University’s family nurse practitioner program for her master’s degree studies.

     She is still working full-time at Samaritan and plans to complete her master’s degree in the spring of 2019.

     “My interest is in family medicine, and I plan to focus on preventative medicine,” she said. “There has been such an increase in age-related health issues in our community.”

     The registered nursing degree program at Jefferson “gave me a solid foundation to further my education in nursing,” Mrs. Young Marra said.

     “I was impressed with how much the faculty at Jefferson encouraged higher education, and I knew that I wanted to learn more after graduating from JCC,” she added.

    She also wanted to share her passion for the nursing profession with others. In 2016 and 2017, Mrs. Young Marra worked as an adjunct clinical instructor in the JCC nursing program.

     Under the direction of JCC faculty, she taught a group of students in her specialty area in the hospital, covering topics such as labor and delivery and the neonatal intensive care unit.

   “Jefferson Community College helped me understand that knowledge is power, and it’s okay to ask questions,” she said. “The instructors had a huge impact on my career, and taught me how to be the best nurse you can possibly be.”

     Mrs. Young Marra said it was a “seamless transfer” to work at Samaritan after graduation because she had completed all her clinical work at the Watertown hospital while studying at JCC.

     “I had already worked side-by-side with many of the Samaritan staff” before starting her new position, she said.  

       Jefferson Community College has a strong partnership with Samaritan Medical Center. Approximately 90 percent of the clinical practice done by JCC students takes place at Samaritan.

    This partnership serves as a valuable recruitment tool for Samaritan Health Systems, said Kim Thibert, vice president of patient care services and chief nursing officer at Samaritan.

     “Our relationship with Jefferson Community College works very well,” said Mrs. Thibert. “It really benefits both parties. It’s valuable for nurses to work with students because it challenges them as well.”

    Since 2013, approximately 73 percent of students graduating from Jefferson Community College’s RN program have been hired to work at Samaritan Medical Center, the Samaritan Keep Home, Summit Village, and Samaritan’s family health clinics, she said. Samaritan employs 470 registered nurses throughout its healthcare system.

   “We also have nurses who have gone back to work as instructors at Jefferson,” Mrs. Thibert said. “That’s another great aspect – for the students to see their instructor who is also working as a nurse here.”

     There is a distinct advantage of having students complete clinical rounds at Samaritan and joining the hospital after graduation, she said.

    Because they do the majority of their clinical work at Samaritan, they are already familiar with many aspects of the hospital’s operations, including its electronic document system, and its specialized equipment, such as IV pumps, Mrs. Thibert said.

    “The organization is very familiar to them, and it’s easier for them to transition into a new job,” she said.

    Samaritan holds several orientation periods throughout the year to accommodate JCC graduates from both the spring and the fall semesters, and those who wish to begin employment in September, she said.

    The hospital hires JCC graduates and enrolls them in orientation programs, during which time they work under registered nurses with a “limited permit” until they can take their National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurse board exams.

   Samaritan also offers JCC students the opportunity to complete a two-week internship during their winter break in a specific department of the hospital, Mrs. Thibert said. This provides a chance for these students to gain additional experience in a particular area of interest.

    The arrangement also gives the Samaritan nursing staff an opportunity to better observe the students at work, enabling them to provide a future recommendation if they believe a particular student would be a good fit for their unit, Mrs. Thibert said.

   “One nurse works side-by-side with the student during those two weeks,” she said. “It gives that nurse an opportunity to really determine if the student would be a good fit for that department. This arrangement can help get a job offer to go out sooner.”

      Registered nurses at Samaritan are offered many opportunities for transfers into different departments, as well as advancements, she said.

    “You should never be bored with nursing,” Mrs. Thibert said. “There are so many different opportunities here – there is always another area you can move into within the Samaritan system.”

     Katie Eveleigh O’Brien graduated from the registered nursing program at Jefferson Community College in 2008, and started employment at Samaritan shortly afterwards in the hospital’s progressive care unit. She worked there for nine years, and just recently transferred to the hospital’s intensive care unit.

     “I did all my clinical work in different units at Samaritan,” she said. “And in each one, I observed the strong teamwork that was very characteristic of the nurses. They are very compassionate people.”

     While a student at Jefferson, she was impressed at how the instructors had encouraged students to develop their critical thinking skills, Mrs. O’Brien said.

    “It was not just about doing tasks,” she said. “It was about taking care of the whole patient and the family, and looking at the situation to determine the best outcome for the patient.”

    Mrs. O’Brien earned her bachelor’s degree in registered nursing at SUNY Canton in 2016, and is currently working on her master’s degree in nursing administration from SUNY Empire State College.

   “The staff at Jefferson has always emphasized the importance of higher education after the community college degree was completed,” she said. “When I went to JCC, they told us your associate’s degree will give you the foundation to build on, but to consider it a stepping stone to future education.”

    Mrs. O’Brien is also teaching nursing students at Jefferson Community College as an adjunct instructor. She primarily works with students completing their clinical rotations at Samaritan Medical Center.

   She was so positive about her nursing career at Samaritan and her education at Jefferson Community College that she convinced her sister to enroll in the program as well.

     Her sister, Megan Finucane, started in the JCC nursing degree program after the birth of her son in 2013. She had previously attended SUNY Plattsburgh, where she studied anthropology. But after leaving college, she worked primarily in the service industry, often times as a bartender.

 “My sister had been trying to get me to go into nursing since 2007,” Ms. Finucane said. “I used to see her with all her homework at the kitchen table, and at that time, I didn’t think I had the smarts and the drive to pursue that career path.”

    But after her son was born, Ms. Finucane decided she wanted a career with long-term stability, and “I realized I was not reaching my full potential as a bartender,” she said.

     Ms. Finucane had given birth at Samaritan Medical Center, and remembered how the nurses who cared for her were not only compassionate, but worked very hard to help empower all the mothers during birth and afterwards.

   “I wanted a profession that I could be proud of,” she said. “Nursing is a lot of hard work, but you earn a lot of respect. You give a lot of yourself.”

   “Jefferson Community College prepared me well for my exams and my career,” Ms. Finucane said. “I did all my clinical work at Samaritan, and decided to apply there. I was offered a position on the morning of my graduation.”

    She was able to start her orientation in the progressive care unit at the hospital just a few days afterward, and has been working there since graduation. She is currently transitioning to work in the intensive care unit, the same department as her sister, although they probably won’t be working too many shifts together because of their schedules, she said.

 “People ask me all the time if we could work together, and I always say of course,” Ms. Finucane said. “We have a great relationship, and we’re both very professional.”

    Ms. Finucane said one aspect of nursing that she really enjoys is the ability to help others. “I really love giving back to the community,” she said. 

    “I am a people person, and I’m very upbeat,” she added. “I believe that’s an important aspect of being a nurse – the ability to lift people’s spirits. Even with a simple smile.”