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Jefferson Community College nursing program one of best in state, but at what cost?

Julia Botero
JCC nursing students practice giving intravenous fluids.

For the second year in a row, every student who completed Jefferson County Community College's nursing program passed the New York State Board of Nursing exam on their first try. This makes JCC one of the top schools in New York to get an associate's degree in nursing. But does the best test taker make the best nurse? 

Amber, Brittany and Dawnelle are filling up their syringes with water, pretending its medicine. The three are students in the nursing program at  Jefferson Community College in Watertown in their third semester. They each hold a paper with the name, age and symptoms of a fictional patient. With the help of her instructor, Amber enters the drugs the patient needs into a computer that unlocks a cabinet full of meds.

"Why don't you pull Chester Chess's V's?  He is nauseated and he wants [name of drug] for his nausea. Now look at your order carefully. This says 3 ml's," said the instructor.

"Oh so I need to give him 2 because he needs 5ml's and I'll have one left over. I got it," said Amber.

With the right dosage in hand Amber joins Brittany and Dawnelle at a table where Mr. Chester Chess's detached plastic arm sits, ready to receive intravenous fluids.

Dawnelle reads her packet of instructions. "Flush pic line every ten hours with saline followed by two millimeters of hydro... so the saline goes first," she said.

JCC's nursing students like Amber Lobdell, Dawnelle Hall and Brittany Devall will graduate with an associate's degree in nursing. The program admits 45 students  a year and about 60 percent of them finish. In 2013 and 2014, all graduating students passed the test for their nursing license. Department head Lisa Coopley says the program's success has to do with the kind of students the program admits and the resources the school offers, like one on one tutoring.

"We have freshmen students who come to us in tears..We can provide them with the resources but we can't do the work for them," Coopley said.

And there is a lot of work. The program requires a commitment of 52 hours a week, which Cooley says is pretty typical of most nursing programs. But this one is a little more intense since the students finish in two years instead of thre or four. On top of that,  most students balance part-time jobs and family obligations.

Dawnelle works nights at Samitarian Hospital in Watertown. She entered the program with a bachelor's degree in biology.

"And I was still shocked with how hard it was to be here, " said Dawnelle.

Students must maintain a C average in the class in order to pass. For every course, they take three written tests and three clinical which are kind of like mock check-ups.  

"We have 45, no, 50 multiple choice questions and then we have to go into lab and... if you fail twice then you're done," said Dawnelle.

She means you're out of the nursing program.  Failing a clinical exam is as easy as forgetting to explain what you are about to do to your fictional patient.

So, through a series of rigorous tests, the program weeds out the students who can't memorize  facts and procedures quickly and accurately. Those students who don't test well probably won't make it through the two years. If they do, by the time they have to take the board exam, they have already answered hundreds of multiple choice questions and are equipped with an arsenal of facts imprinted on their brains.  At that point the nurse's licensing exam may seem easy to them.

But if you ace every test handed to you, does that mean you'll be a good nurse?  What makes a good nurse?

"The first step is listening. Someone doesn't come to your office for no good reason. They come because they have a certain expectation and my first job is to find what it is they need. You really need to look at the person and figure out what their needs are," said nurse practitioner Dawn Scott.

She believes the ability to listen and a sense of compassion is what makes a nurse stand out. The other nurses in her office agreed they learned listening skills on the job, not always  in school.

But listening, memorization and examining patients are all different skills. 

"You have to remain positive. don't let negatively get you down. If you see  your friends aren't making it through the program you still have to try to make it through because nursing school is tough," said Amber.

The lab is over, but Amber, Dawnelle and Brittany are sticking around longer  to practice for their next clinical exam.

"Its on blood administration and its really dangerous if you do it wrong so we really have to practice before we do it on real patients."