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Nurse shortage reaches critical condition

At 45, critical care nurse Donna Lusczynski of Silverdale has practiced her profession in Canada, California, and Italy.

Lusczynski almost perfectly fits the profile of registered nurses living and working in Washington state and on the Kitsap Peninsula.

That’s the problem.

Health care analysts are concerned nearly 70 percent of nurses in Washington are 40 or older and nearing retirement. Meanwhile, the 65 and older age group is expected to grow 93 percent over the next two decades.

“The nursing shortage is here,” Lusczynski said. “It is not debatable.”

Kathy Sanford, vice president for nursing services at Harrison Hospital, said the national nursing vacancy rate currently stands at 11 percent, with the state’s vacancy rate hovering around 12 percent. Locally, the vacancy rate at Harrison has ranged from 3 to 4 percent of nursing jobs left unfilled.

Sanford said the Olympic Health Care Alliance — a volunteer consortium of educators, business leaders and health care providers interested in developing a viable health care workforce in Kitsap, Jefferson and Clallam counties — aren’t about to “sit on our laurels.”

State studies show an average of 68 openings annually for registered nurses on the Olympic Peninsula. Retainment and recruitment efforts are still needed.

“Historically, white females have been attracted to the nursing profession,” Sanford explained. “Today, girls can choose to do anything.”

Over the last 30 years, more professional opportunities have been open to women, especially in the Northwest, where the dot-com craze raged during the late 1990s.

Officials are seeking men and minorities to enter nursing.

“We need to do that anyway,” Sanford said. “Doing so would make the profession stronger because we’d have that diversity.”

But there is public resistance, because the profession remains 95 percent female.

“‘Why would I want to do anything that has the same title as that of feeding a baby?’ is a not-too-uncommon concern,” Sanford said.

Emergency room nurse Marlon Macapinlac, a married 44-year-old father of two, agrees that stigma exists.

“I have been mistaken for a doctor before,” said Macapinlac, who practices nursing at Harrison in Silverdale. “I’ve walked into a patient’s room and they’ve said ‘Hi, doc’ and I said, ‘No, I’m your nurse.’ Others have wondered whether I am just working as a nurse until I become a doctor.”

Macapinlac, a nurse in the military and now in the private sector said the job has rewards — and stress.

“Nursing is like a hand holding a hand — a life,” he said. “Damage can be done with just one little mistake. If an engineer makes a mistake, they can recalculate. You just can’t do that in nursing. One decimal point in a medication could make a huge difference.”

On a recent morning, Lusczynski, a bottle of water near at hand and comfy shoes on her feet, zipped in and out of three critical care rooms at Harrison Hospital.

“I’m coming, sweetheart,” she said, responding to the pleas of a 78-year-old woman, recovering from aorta surgery.

Aside from the health care alliance’s concentrated efforts, rank and file nurses including Lusczynski and Macapinlac have weighed in recently about how to recruit and retain hard-working, young staff for the health care field.

Lusczynski, who in addition to nursing, contracts as an educator for Harrison and serves as an on-call nurse for a local physician, says more should be done to reach out to high school students.

“I think they should be given more opportunities to at least test the waters so they can see what it looks like,” she said.

Jocelyn Dela Rosa, a single mother and registered nurse in Harrison’s progressive care unit, agrees.

“I want to tell those young kids, the community, and families; I want to go to the schools and tell them nurses are leaders in the community,” she said. “We are teachers and we do research. There are many avenues to nursing that are largely left uncharted.”

Rank and file nurses also tend to recommend higher wages, benefits and hours to curb the chances of emotional and physical burn out.

“Nursing is being attached and showing some of yourself to your patients so they know you care,” said critical care nurse Susan Remmele. “Nursing is more than taking care of someone’s illness, it’s taking care of the whole individual — body, mind and soul.”

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