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Local colleges join forces to tackle OR nursing shortage

Posted: 2:12 PM, Mar 18, 2019
Updated: 2019-03-18 19:23:45-04
A nursing student participates in a class at Concordia University.

The operating room can be one of the scariest places in a person's life, and there are not enough nurses to help patients through.

Two percent of perioperative (OR nurses) hired come directly out of school, according to the 2018 AORN Journal. Sharon Chappy, dean of the School of Nursing at Concordia University, said the shortage is only getting worse.

"We have a big gap between nurses who are graduating and saying (you) know I really would like to work in the OR," said Chappy. Unfortunately, the nurses who are in that field now are getting older, and we're needing many more replacements."

Chappy said most nursing students aren't exposed to the OR. It's not that they aren't interested in the specialty. Chappy had an idea to try to fix the problem locally, after talking with Aurora Health Care.

"They were identifying that they have a significant need for OR nurses with Aurora. It's a very hard-to-hire area," said Chappy.

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Chappy asked six southeast Wisconsin schools to join Concordia University by giving students the option of spending a semester in the OR within Aurora. Alverno College, Cardinal Stritch University, Marquette University, MSOE, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and Carroll University are all on board. This program is designed to show students how exciting the job can be.

"There's surgery on hearts and heads and all the different organs, and there's so many different specialties. It takes a long time for a nurse to learn all of those," said Chappy.

"Many OR nurses when they get into the OR and they start working there as a career they never leave," said Chappy.

Christine McCann is the nursing supervisor of Aurora's East Mequon Surgery Center, and she has been an operating room nurse since 1978.

"I love it," said McCann.

McCann said she is one of four nurses set to retire from the surgery center in the next three years. She said it took close to a year to fill a recent opening, and they still are trying to fill an open position.

"Many OR nurses when they get into the OR and they start working there as a career they never leave." — Sharon Chappy, dean of the School of Nursing at Concordia University

"I'm tired. I can't be on my feet eight and nine hours a day anymore. I can't be moving these heavy beds," said McCann. "In my personal experience, I have not seen that gap lessening; it's widening."

The nursing supervisor loves the new partnership. It gives her a chance to share her love of the job with students.

"It's an opportunity for them to explore a different avenue of nursing. ... I hope they can learn to appreciate that there are so many avenues for nurses," said McCann.

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Concordia nursing student Jenae Vandehei is spending her last semester shadowing OR nurses, an area that's personal to her.

"My dad had an accident a few years ago, and he shattered all the bones everywhere. His back was broken and his leg was just completely shattered, so he spent a lot of time in the hospital from it," said Vandehei.

Vandehei said her dad had a bad experience, and that's why she decided to become a nurse.

"I think about him a lot of times when I'm doing my nursing," said Vandehei.

Concordia nursing student Jenae Vandehei on why she decided to become an OR nurse

Vandehei can see herself working in the OR down the line.

The 2018 AORN Journal said 52.5 percent of nurses in Wisconsin are over 45.

"All nurses are getting older, but our perioperative nurses tend to be a little bit older than the average nurses," said Chappy.

If the program works like Chappy hopes, students will be trained and ready to take over before it's too late.

Aurora said it was not able to tell us how many OR nurses it needs now. Concordia said the health care system already hired several students from the program.