When Danielle Cooney thought about how she wanted to spend the rest of her career, she had several choices. She’d spent time as a Registered Nurse (RN), a salesperson, a realtor, and an entrepreneur. But to her, the choice was clear.
“I’ve done a lot in my life, and I needed to decide what I wanted to do with the rest of it,” Cooney said. “I had to do some soul-searching and determine what it was at the end of the day that I wanted to do. And I realized that when I come home at the end of the day, I want to know that I’ve helped people’s lives and health. I wanted to contribute to the good of humanity, not just sales dollars.”
Cooney began a nurse refresher program two years ago to get back into nursing, but the hurdles stacked up. She was still running her own business, she was caring for multiple sick family members, and the program was a 90-minute commute away from her home near Charlotte. Ultimately, it was too much to juggle. But this spring, things were different.
“I’d already begun researching programs when COVID took over,” Cooney said. “But COVID didn’t make me hesitate – it made me more eager, because there was a need.”
This time, Cooney found out about an accelerated online nurse refresher program. In order to help address the state’s nursing shortage in light of the COVID-19 outbreak, the UNC-Chapel Hill Friday Center for Continuing Education, UNC-Chapel Hill School of Nursing and the North Carolina Area Health Education Centers Program (NC AHEC) temporarily waived tuition and fees for an accelerated version of their online, self-paced RN Refresher theory course, for the month of April 2020. The accelerated program was designed to help trained and licensed nurses quickly get back into the field as COVID-19 caused a surge in the state’s need for health care personnel. (While the accelerated program is no longer being offered, the program’s standard 9-month version is always open for enrollment.)
All in all, the accelerated program enrolled 184 students in the free online theory course. Of these students, 164 hold North Carolina nursing licenses, and the remainder are licensed elsewhere but live in the state of North Carolina. During April 2019, the standard RN Refresher Program enrolled 16 students – meaning that nearly 12 times as many nurses enrolled in the free program, year over year.
“This pandemic underscores an urgent need for experienced healthcare professionals across our state,” said Nena Peragallo Montano, dean of the UNC School of Nursing. “We’re hopeful that by offering this fast-track program and making it more accessible we can help nurses across the state as they continue serving North Carolinians in our fight against coronavirus.”
Cooney is a great example of how the free accelerated program increased access to learners with great potential.
“The financial assistance was huge for my family – I wanted to fast-track through it and get to work, so that meant I couldn’t really work while taking the refresher program,” she said. “And the first wave of COVID was a scary time, with instability – so the benefit of the financial assistance really helped make it possible, and motivated me to move quickly through the program.
“I just killed it – I studied nonstop! I finished the online portion in 5 weeks. It was good to shift my brain back into clinical nursing – it had been a long time – but, once a nurse, always a nurse.”
The RN Refresher program includes a self-paced, online theory course and a clinical practicum. It can be used by both those who have lapsed in their licensure and active RNs who are looking to refresh and update their knowledge. By the end of the three months provided by the accelerated offering, the majority of learners had passed the theory course. Others chose to enroll in and pay for the standard version of the program, which is offered year-round, demonstrating the program’s value to its students. Most learners have already finished their clinical practicum, while some are still awaiting placement. Full employment data for program graduates will be measured over the coming months.
Ultimately, Cooney was placed in a clinical practicum in a hospital setting, which was exactly where she wanted to be. While she was nervous at first, she said her colleagues quickly helped her feel comfortable and prepared.
“These are the smartest and hardest working women I’ve ever been around in my life,” Cooney said. “They are so knowledgeable and so hardworking. It’s so admirable, and when you consider the extra workload and stress put on them by COVID, what they’re doing is a heroic feat. It does require massive amounts of work, and motivation, and a desire to care for people.”
Ultimately, Cooney was hired on the med/surg unit where she did her clinical preceptorship. She’s already making a difference, exactly where she wanted to be.
“I’m just so grateful that it was available remotely, because there are very few locations in North Carolina, especially in the Western part of the state or the Piedmont, that you can actually complete a program like this,” she said. “Making it available and flexible, the accelerated timeframe, the financial assistance – I’m just truly grateful the planets lined up and I was able to do it. I couldn’t be happier with the experience.”