Amanda Loan and Michelle McDonald checked their pregnant patient’s vital signs and fluids with the confidence of nurses who had worked on a hospital floor for years.

The single-bed room looked like countless hospital rooms across the country — except for the large two-way mirror along the back wall. Behind the glass, in a darkened room equipped with computers and speakers, instructors monitored their Chattahoochee Technical College nursing students’ every move.

The ‘patient’ was in reality Stephanie Belim, a faculty member and simulation coordinator for the nursing school. Convincing in her discomfort, she complained of abdominal pain below her strapped-on, lifelike pregnant belly with an unborn “baby” inside.

Belim cried out to the nursing students and gestured to her pain’s location, setting into motion the protocols all nurses-to-be learn in their classes.

The scenario was as realistic as possible, though it was a simulated clinical situation. After their visit with their actor-patient, Loan and McDonald sat with their instructors for feedback on what they did right, and areas to be improved. All nursing students must complete 16 hours of simulated clinical experience. Some of the students will have emergency room experience as well, Belim said.

“It’s how we get them ready for the real world,” explained Quetina Pittman-Howell, director of nursing for the school’s nursing program in Dallas.

The school’s 16-month Associate of Nursing Science RN program is ranked third in a field of 40 from throughout the state by a national nursing organization. The school’s practical nursing program was recently ranked first in the state by PracticalNursing.org.

The school graduates between 35 and 50 registered nurses every year through its traditional 16-month program.

“Another 15 to 20 licensed practical nurses enroll in our three-month Bridge program to become RNs,” Pittman-Howell said.

The number of graduates is a drop in the bucket compared to the unending need for nurses across Georgia, and the serious nursing shortage nationally, she said.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates a national deficit of nearly one million nurses by the year 2022. Previous shortages were more about a lack of supply, with fewer people choosing to make nursing their career, according to bureau reports. Current shortages are the result of both an aging population and aging workforce, industry observers note. ‘Baby Boomers’ are going into their golden years, and estimates show one in every five people will be a senior citizen by 2030, according to the government reports.

Registered nurses work in a variety of professional settings or industries, with five of those — general medical and surgical hospitals, offices of physicians, nursing care facilities, home health care services and employment services — providing about 80 percent of all nursing employment, the BLS report continued.

As the population ages, so do nursing staffs, Pittman-Howell said. Approximately one-third of the current nursing workforce is 50 or older and there is a limited supply of new nurses entering the workforce each year — not enough to cover the deficit created by those who will soon retire, she said.

Nursing burnout also contributes to the shortage, she said.

“When you’re in practice, versus when you’re in school, there is this realization of the demand — what it takes to be a nurse,” explained Pitman-Howell. “It becomes daunting with the hours you put in, patient loads, the health insurance issue and how that has affected our country as a whole.

“When I first started 15 years ago, a patient might come in with one diagnosis. Now they have four or five complex disease processes. If I’m managing six people and everybody has diabetes, hypertension and heart failure, I have to know it all. My day is swamped with trying to prioritize, taking care of families, passing meds, transferring patients to and from the cath lab, patients going to the OR (operating room) and back, and all this in a 12-hour shift. It’s exhausting.”

An alarming number of nurses elect to leave the profession long before retirement, she said. “We lose 50% of our new graduates. They’re not leaving one hospital to go to another, they leave nursing altogether. So even if we graduate 50 new nurses this year, 25 of them might say next year, ‘I’m out of here, I’m not going to do nursing anymore.’

“They’re leaving the profession because of the demands and the way that we treat each other. That’s why civility is so big in our program (at Chattahoochee Tech). We treat each other with respect. If a patient codes, I can’t do it by myself. It takes a village,” she said.

New doctors and residents are learning to respect nurses more, replacing a more subordinate position many nurses had to endure for decades, Pittman-Howell said. “Back then it was like, ’I’m the doctor and you’re the nurse,’ but the doctors are learning how to work together. We’re on the same scale and there’s a lot more respect. That’s the new paradigm.”

Loan, 28, is nearing her graduation from the Chattahoochee Tech program. She chose the profession because she knew nursing offered the opportunity to “take care of people at their worst and making them better. It’s a very humbling job and I’ve always wanted to do it. I worked in retail before, and then I got my CNA (certified nursing assistant) and the hunger for nursing just wouldn’t go away,” the Cartersville resident said.

“I’m definitely a people person,” notes McDonald, 31, from Emerson, who was also a CNA before enrolling in the Chattahoochee Tech program. “I knew I had to do this even though it is highly demanding and stressful. The job security is solid, and there’s always a need for nurses,” she said. “If you get tired of ICU, you can always do bedside or post-op, or take a break.”

“There are so many opportunities, and I couldn’t dream of doing anything else,” Loan said.

Tuition and books typically cost the two-year students a total of $6,000, Pittman-Howell said. “Nurses will earn that back in two months and have no student debt.”

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