By CANDACE CHASE
The Daily Inter Lake
What began as a conversation eight years ago resulted in eight students earning their bachelor's degrees in nursing this month without leaving the Flathead Valley.
Sue Justis, chairwoman of the Allied Health Division at Flathead Valley Community College, said the idea was to reduce the number of moves a student made to finish a degree through Montana State University's College of Nursing.
"People who have roots here can stay here," Justis said. "This has just been such a wonderful thing."
Annetta Bean, one of the new graduates, agrees. Without the Kalispell program, she faced tough choices with an employed husband, a job at the hospital and a home in the valley.
"I was a high school dropout," she said. "This is the first time I've ever graduated."
Bean married at a young age and left high school. She discovered her passion to become a nurse while working as a nurse's aide at Kalispell Regional Medical Center.
Bean began pursing her dream by taking lower division classes at the community college.
"I received several scholarships that really helped me," she said.
Bean worked hard to earn good grades with an eye to applying to MSU or Salish Kootenai College to complete her bachelor's of science in nursing. Academic success and family dilemmas helped her win a coveted Kalispell placement.
Only eight students get accepted to complete their junior and senior years in the Flathead Valley.
"That's the maximum number the nursing faculty can safely supervise," Justis said. "Clinical supervision has to be done hands-on."
She said the program can't grow any faster and maintain excellence.
Similarly, applicants to the college's new radiologic technician program compete for just four openings. The excellence of that allied health program was validated when the first four students passed their licensing exams with superb scores.
Justis expects no less from these students when they take their national exam to become registered nurses.
Although a little anxious, Bean said she feels confident the program has prepared her well to earn the R.N. after her name.
"MSU students have a 95 percent pass rate," she said.
Flathead Valley Community College has no shortage of students hoping to follow in Bean's footsteps. Justis saw her advising load rocket from 20 students a few years ago to 200 today.
Students apply in April at the end of their sophomore year for acceptance into MSU's College of Nursing. Sometime during the summer they find out if they got accepted.
In the 2004-05 school year, 410 people applied for 168 slots student slots across the state. Only top students with a special need to stay here get chosen by a panel of faculty and two students for the eight Kalispell positions.
"It's extremely competitive," Justis said. "They all had a compelling need to stay here."
Students not selected have the option of applying to study in Bozeman or satellite programs in Missoula, Great Falls and Billings.
The lucky eight chosen for the Kalispell site participate in a combination of classroom and clinical training working with patients. The students participate in the classroom portion via interactive television.
"Our classes are distance-delivered from Missoula," Justis said.
Bean said the classes had a few technical blips along the way. But overall, she called the technology "incredible."
"To be able to stay in Kalispell, I'd gladly do it again," she said.
Kalispell Regional Medical Center and North Valley Hospital provided the clinical opportunities as well as financial support for the program. Two MSU faculty members located in Kalispell teach and supervise students as they work with patients.
Bean said her experience as a nurse's aide helped her deal with the hands-on part of the training with less anxiety than some of the other student nurses. She recalled one student who froze up as she was about to enter a patient's room.
"I was able to encourage them and help them," she said.
Bean explained that clinical work begins with bed baths for patients, then progresses gradually up to more difficult tasks such as inserting intravenous needles during the first summer of the senior year.
With her training behind her, Bean has applied for a new graduates employment program offered at Kalispell Regional. It provides novice nurses extra guidance and help in their first job experiences.
Job openings for nurses abound throughout the country.
Justis said some areas offer signing bonuses as high as $30,000.
"I can't imagine that jobs will be an issue" for these students, she said.
Justis said the Flathead doesn't have a severe shortage of nurses as some areas of the country.
"But it's coming," she said. "This program is absolutely needed."
The Flathead training site will stem the talent drain that occurs when student nurses leave for two years. FVCC President Jane Karas views the partnership with MSU and the hospitals as a gain for the community as well as students.
"It also increases access to health care for all valley residents," Karas said.
Reporter Candace Chase may be reached at 758-4436 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org