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Nursing’s next generation steps up

Kate Hamilton was a classically trained singer with her eye on an opera career, when she took a left turn into nursing. Raised in a family of healthcare professionals, Hamilton always respected the field, but her personal talents had her heading in a different direction. 

More than 170 years after Florence Nightingale established the first professional nursing school, careers in nursing are flourishing

Still, after seven years of vocalizing in New York City, the 35-year-old singer, who also worked as a labor-and-delivery doula, enrolled in the direct-entry Nurse Practitioner Program at Simmons University in Boston.

Making the transition from singer to nursing amid the pandemic was surprisingly easy, says Hamilton, who also works part-time providing medical services to the city’s homeless. She will graduate from Simmons as a Nurse Practitioner in May.

The appeal of her chosen profession? “I know what I’m doing is meaningful,” she says.

More than 170 years after Florence Nightingale established the first professional nursing school, careers in nursing are flourishing. Classrooms are filling with candidates like Hamilton, who are better educated and from more diverse backgrounds. 

Yet this new wave of nurses—the eighth generation since Nightingale professionalized the job in 1860—are on the cusp of a different and demanding future. They will face challenges unseen in the past, even as they experience great successes.

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Terry Hudson-Jinks, chief nursing officer at Tufts Medical Center

Today’s nurses are “very dedicated and very smart,” says Terry Hudson-Jinks, chief nursing officer with Tufts Medical Center. “It gives us great hope for the future.”

That hope is only now emerging from a challenging pandemic past when nurses left the profession in droves. Although there is no formal data on nurse resignations since 2019, when the pandemic began, more than 116,000 are estimated to have left their jobs, says Carmela Townsend, executive director of the American Nurses Association Massachusetts, Inc. Two North Shore Hospitals alone lost 320 nurses during the two years of the pandemic.

Yet despite such traumas, enrollment in nursing schools is booming. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that 1.1 million new RNs will be needed in the coming years. The nursing students who fill those jobs will find good pay, flexible schedules, and rewarding work.

Lauren Sheehan has found great satisfaction in nursing after transitioning from her job as a patient care technician at Lowell General Hospital. Four years after earning her nursing degree, she oversees a 30-bed unit and about 60 staffers on the hospital’s surgical floor. “I fell in love with it,” this first-generation nurse says of her medical career.

You hear that phrase a lot from nurses, young and old, even as many of this new generation of nurses hold four-year degrees, and some even master’s degrees in the field.

Once a profession dominated by women, nursing today is attracting men and women from various ethnic backgrounds. Drawn by high salaries, three-day workweeks, a variety of job opportunities, and the desire to help people, the nurses of tomorrow will also be more medically specialized.

Once a profession dominated by women, nursing today is attracting men and women from various ethnic backgrounds

Paul Simion, 25, a nurse at Addison Gilbert Hospital in Gloucester is one of the growing numbers of male nurses in the field. 

“If you’re passionate about taking care of people, it’s a good career,” says Simion, who began working as a nurse’s aide right out of high school. Today, he’s a nurse in the hospital’s medical telemetry unit. 

Thomas Hunter was a respiratory therapist before entering nursing 14 years ago, after realizing his therapy job offered limited advancement. Today, he works in the bio-containment unit of the Intensive Care Ward at Massachusetts General Hospital. 

“With nursing, you can do all kinds of things,” says the 45-year-old Hunter, who envisions a future in technology and artificial intelligence.

Well educated and technologically savvy, this new generation of nurses is also socially conscious. They talk about the need for more diversity on the job and more voices in the boardroom. They advocate not only for their peers but for their patients, many of whom can’t advocate for themselves. 

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Manavi Dhakal is one of those voices.

A native of Nepal, Dhakal went into nursing after her mother asked her to fulfill her own dream of becoming a nurse. Dhakal’s first job as a nurse was in a correctional institution. That’s when she decided her future lay in the field of mental health. Today, she is the system director of behavioral health for Melrose-Wakefield Healthcare. 

Hospital administrators say it’s connection with patients that keeps nurses going

Nursing “is a very stressful field to be in,” says Dhakal, who advocates for both her patients and work colleagues who have suffered under the mental strain that was part of Covid. “We are afraid to pick up the phone and say I need a mental health day. I want to change that stigma.”

While caring for the smallest infants in the Neo-Natal Intensive Care Unit at Tufts Children’s Hospital, Molly Simeone, a 28-year-old RN, decided to harness technology by inventing a tracking tool that allows nurses to keep abreast of newborn screenings. She’s even better known as the creator of a Halloween-themed nursery where infants are decked out in tiny costumes every October. There are little ducklings for the unit’s “Make Way for Ducklings” day and spotted dog costumes for their “101 Dalmatians” celebration.

“It’s such a special day,” Simeone says. “Each year on Halloween, parents are so excited to see their babies. It shows that nursing is more than giving out medication.”

It’s that kind of connection that keeps nurses going, hospital administrators say.

“We’re inspired by the nurses who are joining the profession,” Hudson-Jinks says of a field that has changed so much since 1860. Yet while nursing methods may have changed, the caring and comfort nurses provide have remained much the same. Florence Nightingale would be proud.

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