St. Anthony: Nursing career came later in life for these U students

  • Article by: NEAL ST. ANTHONY , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 19, 2014 - 1:03 PM

An unusual nursing program at the U aims to turn midcareer students from other fields into modern-day health care providers.

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Sara Wip­linger, left, was a land- scape architect; Jessica Rosenberg was a lawyer. Star Tribune photo

Photo: Richard Tsong-Taatarii, Star Tribune

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Three Twin Citians with disparate backgrounds will spend the rest of their careers trying to deliver health care as newly minted graduates of a 16-month master’s program in nursing that the University of Minnesota says is the first of its kind in the region.

Dominique Jones, 29, was a full-time social worker who plans to work as a midwife. That way, she figures, she can intervene early in the lives of young girls about issues of health, education and life planning before they become mothers and part of the many dysfunctional families that she’s worked with in St. Paul.

Jessica Rosenberg, 36, was an associate attorney at a couple of big law firms who was bored by the work and took a layoff as an opportunity to realize her passion to become a ­pediatric nurse.

Sara Wiplinger, 34, a landscape architect (who also was a sergeant in the Minnesota National Guard), worked in marketing for a family business before concluding she wanted to be a nurse.

The three women, who earned their master’s degrees in December, were among 64 classmates, ages 23 to 63, that also included five men. It is the latest of several graduating classes among people who had earned unrelated bachelors’ degrees.

They each have personal reasons for changing careers to become nurses. As a group, they may be seen as part of the solution that must emerge in U.S. health care reform: highly trained professionals who can economically deliver care, including helping patients take better care of themselves and their families as well as tens of millions of baby boomer parents who threaten to swamp the system as they age.

Highly trained nurses and physician’s assistants can earn up to $90,000 or more. Increasingly they are delivering care and education to patients in an environment marked by proportionately fewer primary care physicians. Most medical school graduates become six-figure specialists and surgeons after years of training.

Last fall, the Bentson Foundation made a $10 million donation to the University of Minnesota School of Nursing that it said was meant to address the “acute shortage” of primary care providers. These are folks who are paid less than specialist physicians and surgeons but who are needed to help address rising health care costs and the needs of a rapidly growing senior population. The goal is to help train 500 advanced-practice nurses over the next decade.

“We believe the focus of this gift can have a transformational effect on health care access, costs, quality and outcomes, particularly for underserved and rural populations,” Judi Dutcher, executive director of the Bentson Foundation, said in October.

The university launched its three-year doctor of nursing practice program several years ago. The highly skilled graduates treat complex and chronic conditions, prescribe medication, manage electronic health records, coordinate care and refer patients, when necessary, to specialists for advanced treatment.

Dr. Aaron Friedman, who retired last year as dean of the university’s medical school, called the trend part of the collaborative “future of high quality and accessible health care.”

In laymen’s terms, nurses — always part of the sometimes-unappreciated front line of health care delivery — are moving up the industry’s food chain to do more.

Rosenberg said she considered medical school but realized that her calling was working hands-on with babies in a neonatal intensive care unit.

“The nurses are the boots on the ground and the eyes of the doctor,” she said. “The doctors aren’t always there and they may have [responsibility] for 20 to 40 babies. The doctors need and value the input of the nurses.”

Jones, who will start the program in September, said she grew frustrated as a Ramsey County social worker, working with often-dysfunctional families headed by women and where there often were issues of mental health, lack of education and distrust.

“I often felt like I was entering late in the game,” Jones said. “I needed to do more than my career was giving me. I needed to get involved earlier in the lives of young women. They need goals and a plan. You help society one family at a time. And that’s what midwifery and this nursing program will help me do.”

Rosenberg started caring for kids part-time after she was laid off, and she also is making payments on her law school student loans.

“I’ll probably be paying off student loans until I’m 60,” Rosenberg said. “But nursing is what I wanted to do. I never expected to be rich.”

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