While training to become an emergency medical technician in the U.S. Air Force Reserve, Isaac Snow read a couple hundred pages a night for six weeks. It was highly stressful and intense academic work, he said, but the Chaska, Minn. native enjoyed the pace and learned to thrive in it.
As he wound his way through several stops from basic training at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio and into a military order to station at the Minneapolis VA Medical Center, Snow discovered he did well in some of the most critical settings, such as emergency rooms and intensive care units.
"I was walking around the VA with my IV card at 18 years old," he said, describing how he did well inserting intravenous needles into patients. "It's a big draw: finding your clinical tool and knowing what to do."
Snow, 21, is now a junior pursuing his bachelor of science in nursing degree at the College of St. Scholastica. He remains a part of the 934th Airlift Wing based in Minneapolis. His experience mirrors the experiences of a lot of military servicemembers and veterans whose training and backgrounds are allowing for transitions into nursing and other healthcare professions.
For Veterans Day, the News Tribune examined the trend of veterans transitioning into healthcare fields. It's something the White House pushed for earlier this decade when first lady Michelle Obama and Jill Biden launched Joining Forces, a multifaceted, national initiative designed to support and give opportunities to servicemembers and their families.
Its outcomes are manifesting in the Northland. Both St. Scholastica and Lake Superior College are getting ready to offer programs specifically designed to take advantage of what veterans already know by rounding out their educations on their way to becoming degree-holding, civilian-ready nursing professionals.
To hear those with experience tell it, military service and nursing make for a matched pair. On the phone from his home in Palm Springs, Calif., William Bester described the easy connection between service to uniform and country and serving people in need of nursing care. A Duluth native and one of St. Scholastica's most notable alums, Bester rose to become a U.S. Army brigadier general on his way to being named the first male chief of the Army Nurse Corps in 2000. The oldest of seven siblings, Bester, 65, was a registered nurse himself. Now retired, he remains plugged into both St. Scholastica and the nursing community. He described a country "critically short of nurses," saying that between the end of 2013 and 2022 the United States will need to have cultivated more than one million new nurses to make up for population growth and to replace retiring nurses. Military veterans can be part of the solution, he said.
"A lot of these folks coming out of the military have been medics or corpsman in one of the forces; they have medical focuses and backgrounds but not the college education or are not formally nurses," Bester said. "What these programs are doing is asking, 'How can we give veterans constructive credit for education and experience they have had to this point and get them through to their nursing degree?'"
At St. Scholastica, Bester helped the college receive nearly $1 million in federal Health and Human Services grant funding last summer to create a program that will work to cultivate two-dozen veterans and turn them into nurses over the coming three school years. The veterans will start the program as sophomores in what faculty lead Sue Connor called three different eight-student "cohorts." The veterans will earn a year's worth of credits for their military experience before embarking on a degree path similar to the one Snow is currently traveling. The school is in the process of "crafting the experience," Connor said, and using students like Snow to influence the curriculum.
"We're really looking at honoring veterans and their experience by threading their perspectives throughout the whole curriculum," she said, explaining that students will have access to professional mentors with military backgrounds.
Connor acknowledged a learning curve when transplanting a soldier into a civilian program, saying some of the skills of the medic or corpsman, who are versed in tense conflict arenas, are not aligned with the general practice of a bedside nurse.
At the same time, she said, soldiers bring to the table maturity and invaluable life experience.
At Lake Superior College, there are currently two military medics in the school's associates degree RN program with a formalized medic-to-practical nursing program set to launch in January 2017.
Faculty members are working with state and national boards and military representatives, including members of Duluth's 148th Fighter Wing, to identify the gaps that need to be addressed when educating military-trained personnel.
Combat veterans are well-versed in triage and emergency medicine, but their training doesn't necessarily address preventative measures or long-term care.
"They have a lot of technical skills but what is lacking is the theory," said Deb Amys, director of nursing programs for LSC. "That's where we're going to pick up and provide theory behind technical skills."
She explained medics are used to dispensing small amounts of medications, but lack the broad-based knowledge of medications and their side effects.
The school has already taken the lead with its military bridge physical therapist assistant program. Developed in 2012 by physical therapist assistant program director Jane Worley, the military bridge program has been running as an online degree available nationwide since 2013. It's believed to be the only program of its kind in the country. It boasts 15 graduates, Worley said, and currently features 60 veterans and servicemembers who were (or are) physical therapy technicians or specialists, depending on the service branch. Participants get 54 credits for their military service, meaning they have only 20 credits remaining before they earn their applied science degree and a chance to take their board exam in an effort to join the ranks of civilian PT assistants. Worley spent a year understanding and filling the curriculum gaps before launching the course.
As PT techs or specialists, "They were used to getting and treating people with a lot of burns, trauma, orthopedic and neurologic (damage) ... amputees," Worley said. "They didn't get pediatric or geriatric training."
The military techs and specialists also practiced with a larger scope, even doing assessments that, in civilian practice, are the domain of the physical therapists.
Any soldier practicing as a PT tech or specialist stationed in any capacity in the United States is eligible to enroll in the program. (Deployed soldiers are not eligible for technical reasons).
"It's been a good thing," said Worley, describing a degree that opens doors to better-paying professional jobs for soldiers who are simply tasked with spending a short time to gain a deeper understanding of their existing field of expertise.
With roughly 32,000 veterans in the Arrowhead region of the state, the hope is that local programs will create nurses and other professionals who can work in their mostly rural communities and even serve wounded and aging veterans.
"Who better to serve a veteran than a veteran?" Bester said.
Connor expanded on the thought, by adding, "They've really found with veterans that they can communicate easily with other veterans. A lot of veterans don't use VA facilities; they use local healthcare facilities and it's nice to have people who understand what they've been through and their experiences."
For Snow, it's not hard to envision a career after St. Scholastica in emergency care, the surgical arena or some other high-pressure area of nursing practice. Listening to him, it's easy to hear his dedication to service.
"I look back and I've always had that kind of mentality," Snow said. "You have a job to do, in a high-stress environment. Somebody needs you to do that job. They're relying on you to do that job."