When Veronica Stevens was in middle school, her father began having heart attacks. She remembers sitting by his bedside in the cardiac unit of Sampson County Regional Medical Center, in Clinton, N.C., and watching the night nurses work. She was touched by their gentleness and compassion and inspired by their energy and skill. "That kind of was where things started for me," she says.
Stevens' father—a construction worker, mechanic and farmer—died at age 62 and did not live to see the ninth of his 11 children graduate from Sampson Community College in 1988 with a degree in nursing. Stevens passed the registered nurse exam and became a nurse on the same ward where she had spent those long nights with her father. "I felt like I had a lot to share," she says. "Sometimes you experience something, and you can have a bit more compassion for people, a bit more patience."
A few years later, the head of the nursing program at her alma mater asked her if she'd like to teach part-time. Stevens was married now and had a young son and decided to give it a try. "I enjoyed it so much that I went to teaching full-time in 1992," she says. "But I still always did some part-time nursing because I loved the clinical setting so much."
While teaching full-time at Sampson, Stevens earned a master's degree in nursing from East Carolina University in 1996. Much of her teaching was centered in the hospital in Sampson County, "so I felt I was still a part of that hospital family," she says. "But I still missed that clinical component, the bedside care."
Sampson and neighboring Duplin Counties, which the community hospital serves, are almost entirely rural. "The big things are poultry production and pork production and soybean and tobacco farming," Stevens says. "People may have to drive 20 miles to the grocery store and 30 miles to the doctor's office. Some areas are unbelievably remote."
Because of their paucity of medical services, the counties were eligible to participate in a program funded by RWJF called Partnerships for Training: Regional Education Systems for Nurse Practitioners, Certified Nurse-Midwives and Physician Assistants, which sought to develop regional models for the education of mid-level practitioners to increase their numbers in underserved areas.
One day in 1997, Stevens opened a flyer from East Carolina University announcing the Partnerships for Training program—a distance-based learning initiative in which she could earn her nurse practitioner certificate. (Nurse practitioners are registered nurses with advanced training who provide primary care services—such as physical examinations, diagnostic testing, interpretation of findings, prescribing medications and patient education and counseling usually working in collaboration with physicians.) "The flyer talked about flexible scheduling, being able to do computer-based learning from home," she recalls. "I thought, 'This is awesome!'"
Classes began in the summer of 1998 with computer training. Then in the fall Stevens began course work, downloading lectures and assignments from the new computer that Partnerships for Training installed in her home. She would get up at 6:30 a.m. to go to work. "Because I didn't have to sit in class, I could come home, get dinner, help with my son's homework, put him to bed—and then it was my school time," she says. "I'm a night-owl, and I like for everything to be quiet. So after my son and husband were asleep, I could stay up late on the computer. I would listen to the lectures and fold laundry."
In the final phase of the three-year program, Stevens' preceptor was Rodney K. Sessoms, M.D., who runs two family practice clinics in the area. "We would talk every day," says Stevens. "He is such a good teacher." When she completed the program, Sessoms hired her as a full-time nurse practitioner. Since he has privileges at Sampson County Regional, she was once again back at the hospital where her passion for health care began.
While still working for Sessoms, Stevens has begun teaching again at Sampson Community. "Before," she reflects, "I taught entry-level nursing students. Now I have the students right before they graduate. And I have a different understanding of things because of my additional education." Recently, she has gotten involved in launching an online computer education program for the nursing students. Thanks to Partnerships for Training and RWJF, she says, "I understand computer learning because I've done it, and I know that it works."