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Second Career, Foremost Passion: The Unique Perspective of Second Career Nurses

Peggy Shadel, RN, a nurse on the medical/surgical unit at Lone Peak Hospital in Draper, Utah, started nursing school when she was 56 years old. Read on to learn about her experience as a second career nurse.

“I graduated two years ago, and now I am working full time, mostly nights. I will turn 60 in a couple of weeks,” said Peggy Shadel, RN, a nurse on the medical/surgical unit at Lone Peak Hospital in Draper, Utah, who started nursing school at 56 years old. “The old saying is true – age is just a number.”

Shadel is one of many nurses who enter the nursing profession after first working in a different field. Many second career nurses re-route their lives to pursue a deep passion for the nursing profession, others to follow a calling to serve patients and others to pursue an interest in the flexibility and mobility of a nursing career. Second career nurses bring a unique set of skills to nursing, leveraging the knowledge they gained from a diverse range of disciplines and experiences to help them better serve patients.

Blake Kevin Smith, BSN-RN, a staff nurse in the Progressive Care Unit at Nebraska Methodist Hospital in Omaha, Neb., started his career as a coach and trainer. He feels his background can be applied to his work in healthcare, working to cultivate a motivated team.

“The best part about having second career nurses in the workforce is the diverse skill set that we have from previous careers,” said Smith. “In the New Careers in Nursing Steering Committee for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, we have a lawyer, accountant, coach, customer service representative, sales representative and a food chemist. Our committee has all the critical skills that many positions need in the nursing field and we bring not only the academic means, but more importantly, the real world experience.”

Smith believes that nurses with diverse backgrounds and career trajectories are an asset to the profession.

“Nursing is a profession that needs people with both ethnic and skill set diversity. Bringing knowledge from other professions and life experiences allows nurses to impact the health profession. It will only aid in the never-ending challenge in making healthcare available to all in need,” he said.

More life experience can also translate to improved relationships with patients and other healthcare providers, explained Shadel. Although the prospect of returning to school after so many years was daunting, she realized her age was an advantage.

“My age has allowed me to better relate to my patients,” she said. “Many are similar in age and I can connect with them because we have been through many of the same experiences. It is rewarding to help them just by listening and lending an empathetic ear. Skills can be taught, but life experience is earned over decades.”

Andrea Useem, a journalist, will begin nursing school at the John Hopkins School of Nursing in Baltimore, Md., this August. Useem first realized she wanted to be a nurse eight years ago, when her three-week-old child was in the hospital with a respiratory infection.

“I remember watching the nurse as she monitored and cared for my baby,” said Useem. “She was so incredibly competent and kind, and she made such a difference during a very stressful moment in our lives. I said to myself: ‘I want to be a nurse.’ Of course, it was many years before I even considered actually taking steps to become a nurse – the idea seemed so far-fetched at the time, because I was so rooted in my career as a journalist and had no healthcare background. I feel grateful to live in a time and place where career change is possible.”

When Useem decided on her career change, she enrolled part-time in prerequisite classes such as anatomy, volunteered at a hospital to get patient experience and made connections with nurses and nursing associations to ensure she was making an educated choice.

“I’ve been lucky to volunteer once a week at a major area hospital in their post-anesthesia care unit. That experience has given me the opportunity to see nurses at work in their native environment, and it’s helped confirm that nursing will be a good fit for me.”

Second career nurses have a myriad of reasons for pursuing nursing, but one of the most common is the desire to pursue a career that gives back to other people. Patrick Hopkins, DNP, APRN, C-PNP, NNP, is not only the co-director of the Accelerated Program for Non-Nurses at the University of Rochester School of Nursing in Rochester, N.Y., he also is a second career nurse himself. He decided to go back to school after realizing that his previous career as a clinical biochemist was not a good fit. To him, nursing offered a fulfilling career choice.

“Being a nurse means shift work, working holidays and weekends, and long, long days— but there’s such satisfaction when you go home and know that someone is breathing a little easier, a parent is a little less anxious or a family was present for a peaceful, meaningful death. As nurses, we are privileged to be witnesses to intimate and life-changing moments. To me, it’s the best job.”

Hopkins encourages potential nursing students to embark on a second career in nursing.

“If you have the courage to change your life, you’ll change many lives,” he said.

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