The horrors that nurses experienced during the COVID pandemic left many of them fatigued and depleted. But Lindsay Naple and Julianna Asaro, Jaclyn Jahn and Sean Arthurs are on their way to help fill the ranks.
They and hundreds of other nursing students are crossing university stages on Long Island this month to be pinned with the badge that signifies their official initiation into the profession.
Jahn has a job lined up in a cardiac-thoracic intensive care unit. Naple, daughter of a retired U.S. Navy helicopter pilot, wants to be a flight nurse. Asaro loves “the fast-paced, stressful environment” of critical care. And Arthurs wants to work in pediatrics like the nurses he saw care for his best friend growing up.
Melody Yeung, who studied at Adelphi, knew she wanted to become a nurse when she saw the care her ill grandmother received. Shannon Healey, who studied at the Long Island Campus of St. Joseph’s University, New York, said she "always wanted to be a nurse."
WHAT TO KNOW
- The number of nurses nationally fell for the first time in four decades in the year after the pandemic hit in 2020, a study found.
- Shortages of nursing faculty and clinical practical skills training placements limit the number of students that nursing programs can accept, according to Stony Brook School of Nursing Dean Patricia Bruckenthal, who said some qualified applicants are being turned away.
- Nurses can get master's and Ph.D. degrees to be further specialized, for example, as a nurse practitioner, nurse anesthetist, nurse midwife, or in administration, public health, mental health, and other areas.
What they share in common with others drawn to the field is a desire to care for people; a motivation that was intensified by the struggles unfolding on hospital COVID wards.
“The COVID-19 pandemic dominated our education here … both in the classroom and the clinical setting. Yet, here we are, ready to graduate and begin our careers as nurses,” said Asaro, 21, of Wading River, addressing fellow nursing graduates at Molloy University Wednesday as a president of its Nursing Student Association.
The new nurses are entering a field that is under stress, with workforce shortages — more retirements are anticipated — and heavy workloads.
An April 2022 study published in the journal Health Affairs, based on census data, found that between 2020, the first year of the pandemic, and 2021, the number of nurses fell by more than 100,000 in the United States after four decades of growth.
That same month, the American Association of Colleges of Nursing published a survey that showed the first decline in four decades in nursing school applications and enrollment nationally, after an initial rise in the early stages of the pandemic.
So it seems like the very thing that made people leave is what has inspired others to join the ranks.
“It’s sort of an interesting dichotomy right now,” said Naple, 34, of Sound Beach, who is graduating from Stony Brook’s accelerated nursing degree program and preparing to take her licensing exam. “You hear about the mass exodus of nurses due to the pandemic, but you also hear about the rise in nursing school applications. So it seems like the very thing that made people leave is what has inspired others to join the ranks.”
Here are some of the graduates' stories.
LINDSAY NAPLE, Stony Brook University
Naple comes from a family of nurses and teachers. Like her twin sister, Angela, a charge nurse in Denver and a Navy nurse reservist, she always admired the photo of her late grandmother in her nursing uniform and cape. But Naple chose something else when her sister claimed the profession first, she said.
“When COVID hit, I had a moment of clarity. I realized I wanted to be there, too … when I was watching on the news and heard from my sister, all I could think of was, I wanted to be in the hospital helping these patients,” she said.
So in 2021, with a career in e-commerce and a degree in economics from Vassar College already on her resume, she took prerequisites for nursing, at night and online. She got a nursing assistant certification “to make sure I could take care of patients’ bodily functions and be OK with it.” And, to the delight of her family, she began nursing school.
“My sister is ecstatic and just wishes we lived in the same city so we could work together. She’s been encouraging me to do nursing the whole time,” Naple said.
She said nursing school taught her that nurses don’t just carry out doctors’ orders “and call it a day."
"Nursing has become its own discipline; they have a lot of autonomy within their own scope of practice,” she said.
JULIANNA ASARO, Molloy University
At the bedsides of very sick people, amid flashing monitors and beeping alarms, is where Asaro wants to be. She discovered it while working as a hospital nursing assistant in critical care during her studies. She wants to continue in intensive care after passing her licensing exam.
“I feel every day when I come here it reinforces why I want to be a nurse,” she said about her work in the hospital. “Just being a person [there] if they want to talk, getting them cleaned up so they can feel like a person again, and providing what they need. My daily tasks and interactions are what is satisfying.”
Studying under pandemic conditions was challenging, she said. “It was stressful, but nursing is a stressful career at times, and it really helped us adapt to that, I feel.
“It was just traumatizing for nurses and even doctors who worked at that time,” she said. “I think now things are better, we have more answers, just knowing what is going on. We are in a much different place now than before.”
Seeing nurses help her family through the deaths of an infant brother, her father and grandparents made her want to be the person giving that support to others, she said.
“To me, this doesn’t even feel like a job,” she said.
SEAN ARTHURS, Stony Brook University
Arthurs, 32, of Holtsville, returned to school for a nursing degree with a prior bachelor’s in communications and broadcasting. He interned and worked briefly for local stations before settling in as an account services representative and supervisor at a glass-and-polishing company.
He was laid off during the pandemic, but that pushed him toward nursing. He wanted to help in any way he could, he said.
Even before that, his prime motivation was seeing his best friend from childhood go through years of treatment for a chronic condition that eventually led to his death.
“Really providing that patient care was the No. 1 goal for me, actually helping families and sick patients get through the day and get them through those really hard treatments,” he said. “My friend had to go through chemo and blood transfusions, and I saw how important the leadership role of a nurse was.”
He’s applying for jobs, preferably in pediatrics, and said there are more openings now than before the pandemic.
“There was a lot of burnout when it comes to nurses who have been doing this awhile. It worries me a little bit, but I feel very prepared for it,” he said.
What worries him more is “just being a new graduate nurse. I know the first year is going to be hard no matter what.”
SHANNON HEALEY, St. Joseph’s University
Healey, 28, of Sayville, knew early on that she wanted to be a nurse, she said. In high school, at Eastern Suffolk BOCES, she obtained a certification in Nurse Assisting and Clinical Medical Assisting, then after a few years of work returned for her licensed practical nursing degree. For the past six years, she has worked at Good Samaritan Nursing & Rehabilitation Care Center in Sayville.
“The main challenge I have experienced is the nursing shortage crisis,” she said. “We need more nurses, especially on Long Island. It is so important that the people within our community have adequate patient-to-nurse ratios within our hospital systems.”
This summer, she begins her career as a registered nurse in the emergency department at Long Island Community Hospital in East Patchogue, not far from home.
“To be able to work in the community I live in is such an honor to me,” Healey said.
JACLYN JAHN, Stony Brook University
Jahn knows where she’ll be once she takes the NCLEX, or nursing National Council Licensure Exam, in August. A job awaits her in the cardiac-thoracic intensive care unit at North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset.
“I’m so ready for the challenge and so excited to learn,” said Jahn, 21, of Rockville Centre, who was recently named a recipient of the Future Nurse Leader Award from the American Nurses Association — New York.
COVID didn’t shake her: “If anything it inspired me more so to enter nursing seeing the sacrifices and the real changes nurses made for their patients,” she said.
She is looking forward to helping people, she said, after growing up in a family of nurses. Her grandmother worked in critical care ICUs and emergency rooms, and her mother is a nurse practitioner. “I think there was a point in time I was back and forth about it, but it was always the thing I came back to,” she said.
Her younger brother, Nicholas, 17, has decided to pursue nursing, too, she said with a laugh. “It has to be genetic. I truly believe he has the heart for it.”
MELODY YEUNG, Adelphi University
Yeung, 22, of Flushing, knew she wanted to become a nurse when she saw how well-treated her grandmother was as she went in and out of hospitals. “I wanted to make a genuine difference in someone’s life,” she said.
She specifically chose nursing over other health care roles because it centers on direct patient care. Yeung, who was president of the Adelphi Student Nurses Association and recipient of several awards at her graduation, added, “I wanted to be more involved with people and get to know the patients’ individualized stories.”
While going through her clinical placements during nursing school, her admiration for nurses grew as she observed them putting on personal protective equipment to care for those with COVID while constantly “up and running,” tending to multiple other patients.
“I can’t imagine how stressful the environment was during the pandemic,” she said. “I do know that a good work environment with supportive staff and managers can make a huge difference in the nurse’s mental health. I have worked in environments with low support and high support, and the difference in the way I felt about going to work was astonishing.”
She believes hospitals should work toward a better work-life balance for nurses, and smaller patient loads. Meanwhile, she has learned in nursing school about the importance of self-care to avoid burnout.
“Now, going into the profession, I know to take care of myself and make time for myself each week,” she said.