By PENNY FLETCHER
RUSKIN — The competition was stiff because so many wanted to get into the first nursing class at Hillsborough Community College’s Ruskin campus but the class would only hold 24.
I had been told the students came from all walks of life and that their past experience was extremely varied before I arrived for my interview March 3 but the cross-section was even wider than I expected.
Young and old; men and women; students fresh out of college and mothers with kids — why, I even talked at length with a male student who had previously been in the Army for 21 years.
The group seemed to have only one thing in common: their desire to graduate from the course with an associate’s degree so they would be eligible to take the Florida exam to practice as a Registered Nurse.
Some say they will continue with their studies after that, going for higher degrees so they can eventually teach, or go into health care administration. Others said getting to work one-on-one with patients as an RN was their ultimate goal.
Their instructor, Jean Stellato, moved to Florida specifically to teach at the new campus, and so she could be near her mother-in-law, Suzanne Boothe, a long-time resident of Sun City Center.
Jean’s background in nursing includes working as a staff nurse, clinical director, head nurse in an open heart surgery operating center, and a director of nursing. She’s also taught at both Messiah College in Grantham, Penn and Penn State.
She has more training and degrees than it is possible to list in a paragraph but the thing that impressed me most is how she obviously enjoys passing her knowledge on to others.
“I’ve loved being a nurse my whole life. It’s all about touching people’s lives. Teaching enables me to help others to do that too, to help them impact lives as well as achieve their own dream,” she said.
And the need for nurses isn’t going away anytime soon. Projections are good for the next 20 years because of the millions of baby boomers now turning 65.
The nursing course now being offered in Ruskin was previously taught at the Dale Mabry and Plant City campuses but not in Brandon, Jean told me. It is a two-year program where students have class time, lab time and (beginning in their third week of study) supervised patient care hours.
The lab they work in (at the college) is fully equipped with a mannequin that can be ventilated; catheterized; have his “blood” withdrawn; syringes injected; and any other procedure done so students can get a feel for it before they start practicing taking each other’s blood pressure and giving each other shots.
Their supervised patient care hours are taking place at South Bay Hospital, Jean said.
The college is also working in conjunction with Lennard High School so that Lennard’s first LPN (Licensed Practical Nursing) class will graduate just about the time the current HCC students are ready to take their state exam. “Some of the LPNs will go straight to work but others will want to go on and become RNs,” Jean said. “And we’re working with other schools and with the community as well.”
The prerequisites for entrance take 21 class hours of training, which can be obtained at the Ruskin campus, she said. “But the competition is stiff. We must take only the top students.”
While there, four students were good enough to let me interrupt their busy schedules and come out for an interview: Elizabeth Gerlach, Jocelyn Possehl, Dave Miller and Ruby Savala.
I asked them about their backgrounds and their hopes for the future.
Dave, who had previously been in the Army, came to this area to help care for an ailing father who moved to Florida for the warmer climate. “I just wanted to do something completely different from what I did before,” he said, referring to his career in the military service.
Jocelyn, who is originally from Maryland, moved to Florida in 1996 to attend Florida Gulf Coast University in Ft. Myers. She ended up marrying, having three children, working for the Child Abuse Council and teaching childbirth education and lactation (breastfeeding) methods. She already has a degree in social work, and continues to work part-time while attending school. She says her goal is to work in a hospital but admitted that eventually she might choose to continue her medical education.
Jean says it is possible to go on from Registered Nursing and get master’s and even doctorate degrees so nurses can teach and head up nursing staffs. Some may eventually become Nurse Practitioners which means they are able to see patients and write prescriptions in clinics where doctors are employed.
Ruby, an East Bay High School graduate in 2005, already works with patients at a local assisted living complex as a Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA). “At first I wanted to be a medical tech of some kind- I was considering something like ultrasound- but when I got my CNA license I enjoyed patient care so much I decided to go into nursing,” she said.
Meanwhile, Elizabeth has had several jobs, mostly in retail sales, and has recently moved back in with her parents so she can concentrate on her studies. “My mom is a nurse practitioner and instructor so I’ve been around this kind of thing my whole life,” she said. She said she thinks her work with the public in retail was good training for working with patients.
All those I interviewed said they wanted to help others while becoming involved in a career where there would be jobs available, even in an economic downturn.
“I have several students who have baccalaureate degrees in other fields,” Jean told me. “But they’ve chosen to come into nursing. I think some of it has to do with the economy and the job climate. We’ll always need health care professionals. But mostly my students are dedicated to becoming nurses because they want to affect people’s lives.”