There was some encouraging news at NVU-Lyndon on Wednesday.

A press conference was held in the famed Burke Mountain Room to announce the launch of a new nursing program designed to give local students an opportunity to get their nursing degree on the Lyndon campus and to expand the nursing capacity in the Northeast Kingdom.

The event was attended by local legislators, officials from the Vermont State Colleges (VSC) and Vermont’s full congressional delegation of Sen. Patrick Leahy, Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Peter Welch.

But it was Northeastern Vermont Regional Hospital CEO Shawn Tester who gave the most powerful speech about the need to start developing more homegrown nurses in the NEK.

“Today, right now, if you look at our job board at NVRH, we have 27 openings for full-time nursing positions,” said Tester. “In addition, we have about another dozen part-time per diem positions to help us gap-fill in critical roles. This impacts our ability to deliver care…It risks placing our Emergency Department into diversion when we’re overwhelmed with patients - which unfortunately is happening more and more often. And it increases reliance on travelers - expensive, temporary nursing staff from out of the area which is not financially sustainable for our health care system.”

Tester, who is also a member of the Vermont State Colleges Board of Trustees, told the gathering that the local nurses working at NVRH are the ‘backbone” of the healthcare system.

“They’re what make our system run and we owe it to them to fill the staffing shortage and get them the help they need to better care for our patients,” said Tester.

The new program at NVU-Lyndon is an expansion of the existing nursing program at Vermont Technical College (VTC) in Randolph - which is also part of the VSC system.

It’s being funded in part by a $240,000 federal grant from the US Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration. Additional funding has come from The Vermont Community Foundation and a gift from Lyndon Alum Christian Mason, class of 1980.

NVRH is also a partner in the project and has already donated hospital equipment to help with the hands-on student training at the planned 1,500 square foot, high-tech Clinical Nursing Education Center that will be built in NVU’s Vail Hall.

The center will provide students with a “simulation lab” - which is a realistic-looking medical facility/classroom where students can practice, research, learn and work toward their nursing degree.

“Many of our health care professionals in this area are working - full or part-time - balancing the needs of family while furthering their educational goals,” said Tester. “This local campus makes that possible…And we know that there are many young people in this area who are interested in pursuing a nursing degree.”

According to the Vermont Board of Nursing, the number of new Registered Nurses licensed in the state of Vermont has declined 69 percent in recent years which has turned the nursing shortage into a nursing crisis.

“It is no great secret that in the midst of a dysfunctional health care system, we have a major, major, nursing crisis,” said Sen. Sanders in his remarks. “Our job - and I think we are all united in this - is to create local nurses. To attract people into the profession and to make sure that they are paid a living wage…While we cannot increase enrollment overnight, there are actions we can take that will allow schools like NVU-Lyndon to bring in more students - especially Vermont students - into the profession.”

Rep. Welch said the new program should also have an important economic and sociological impact in the NEK.

“What do you identify the Northeast Kingdom with?” said Rep. Welch. “For me, it’s self-reliance. It can be tough. It can be a long winter. You gotta get your wood in. You gotta do the things you do to make ends meet. A lot of folks up here work 2-3 jobs. But self-reliance requires a local economy…These really good jobs - to be a nurse, a licensed practical nurse, a registered nurse that are hands-on in the community. And I don’t care how good visiting nurses do. There’s a touch that a local nurse has. Because that’s somebody they know or it’s a family they know…”

Sen. Leahy praised NVU, VTC and NVRH for their collaboration on the project.

“I hope this program can be the first of many we’ll see as Vermont’s residential state colleges come together as Vermont State University and I guarantee you success here is going to be watched by states all over the country.”

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