Full hearts and big rewards - what it means to be a nurse in Alaska

SPONSORED: A look at a fulfilling profession that extends beyond the expected.

Presented by Providence Alaska

Nurses are the heart of the American health care system.

They are a patient’s first point of contact when seeking medical care. They gather medical histories and assess symptoms, help prepare patients for bedside procedures and surgeries, work with physicians to carry out the prescribed course of treatment and, when necessary, advocate on the patient’s behalf.

“When I started nursing school, I don’t really think I knew what a nurse’s role was,” said Amber Chapin, RN and nurse resident at Providence Alaska Children’s Hospital. “A nurse isn’t just there to serve a doctor and do what a doctor tells them.”

Across Alaska, nurses care for patients with kindness and compassion. The benefits of the profession extend beyond the feelings of personal satisfaction that come with helping others.

“The job has used my brain in ways that I could never have predicted,” said Carrie Peluso, DNP, APRN, ACNS-BC, CENP, chief nursing officer at Providence Alaska Medical Center (PAMC). “The benefits are great. The schedules are great. It’s a career that encompasses all those aspects that you’re looking for and is fulfilling on so many levels. I couldn’t imagine doing anything else, truly.”

A specialty for every interest

Television and movie portrayals of nurses depict them providing bedside care to hospitalized patients. That portrayal isn’t untrue – according to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN), 55% of registered nurses work in general medical or surgical hospitals – but it’s not the whole picture. Every nursing classification, from certified nursing assistants (CNA) to advanced practice registered nurses (APRN), has different skill sets and provides different levels of care, in not just hospitals, but nursing homes, medical clinics, schools and other community settings. And, like doctors, nurses can choose from a variety of specialties.

“There are hundreds of different specialties, and it can get really, really specialized,” Peluso explained. “We have emergency, cardio-vascular, cardio-vascular surgery, regular surgery, post-anesthetic care, pre-op, ICU step-down nursing, progressive care nursing, orthopedics, bariatrics, oncology, mother/baby, labor and delivery – it just goes on and on.”

That variety is part of what makes nursing so fulfilling, said Mindy Goorchenko, DNP, FNP-C, APRN, a pediatric forensics nurse with Alaska CARES at PAMC.

“There are so many ways and so many places to be a nurse,” she said. “They are everywhere in the community. You really can do it 1,000 different ways.”

Goorchenko knew she wanted to serve vulnerable populations in a “less traditional environment.” After four years at the Anchorage correctional facility, she transitioned to forensic nursing, where she works with children who are part of child abuse investigations.

“I find it fulfilling to be a safe place for children to share about those hard things that are happening, or have happened,” she says.

Sara Penisten Turcic, RN, BSNS, CPSTI, started off in a more traditional environment, at the Newborn Intensive Care Unit at Providence Alaska Children’s Hospital. While there, she developed an interest in car seat safety, which led to her receiving additional training and certifications; in 2006, she accepted a position as the Injury Prevention Outreach and Safe Kids Alaska State Coalition Coordinator at PAMC. In this role, Turcic conducts community outreach to prevent unintentional injuries and reduce hospitalizations.

“My job is really to keep people out of the hospital and keep our community as healthy and injury-free as we can, so that we can provide services to folks with medical needs versus injuries that we could have prevented,” she explained.

Career advancement, flexible scheduling, excellent benefits

One thing that drew Peluso to a nursing career was the opportunity for career advancement. Throughout her 26-year career, Peluso has been able to grow in the profession. She has worked as an emergency room nurse, a clinical nurse educator, a clinical nurse specialist and now, chief nursing officer.

“There’s so much you learn as you progress,” she said. “And if you’re not liking one aspect, there are so many things you can do.”

For Chapin, a desire to serve the community, plus the flexibility to structure her work schedule, motivated her to leave a 15-year career as an architect and become a nurse; she graduated in December 2022, after completing an accelerated program for students who already have a bachelor’s degree.

“For me, nursing offers both an altruistic, direct benefit to people and families and the community,” she said. “It’s a job where you have some control over your hours, and I needed that after I had kids.”

The three-day, 12-hour shift is the traditional hospital schedule, Peluso said, but some nurses choose four-day, 10-hour shifts, or work longer stretches to have longer periods off. Doctor’s offices and clinics typically have a 9-5 schedule, and school nurses run on the academic calendar, a bonus for nurses with families.

“This is, again, the beauty of nursing,” Peluso said. “There are so many things you can do to arrange your schedule to work for you.”

Growing demand in a dwindling field

The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts 203,200 open RN positions, and 30,200 APRN positions, annually through 2031. But, the supply of nurses can’t keep up with the demand. A 2022 analysis found that more than 100,000 RNs left the profession between 2020 and 2021, and the AACN expects more than 1 million registered nurses to retire by 2030.

The looming shortage is not a surprise, and Alaska is predicted to be one of the states most affected, Peluso said. The COVID-19 pandemic, an aging generation preparing to retire and become patients themselves, and smaller generations unable to fill their numbers, are all contributing factors, she said. Administrators are exploring ways to alleviate the shortage and keep nurses in the profession longer, including virtual models that will allow nurses to help with admissions, documentation and discharge education from home. “A lot of these are things that we probably would have tried in 10 years, but we’re trying them now because we had to because of the pandemic,” Peluso said. “Virtual nursing can keep individuals in the profession for longer.”

At the end of the day, it’s a profession that, nurses say, is not only worthwhile, but an honor and a privilege to be part of.

“As health care providers and as nurses, we step into people’s lives often uninvited,” Turcic said. “We have the honor, really, of walking with people and being their caregiver during the most vulnerable moments of their lives, whether it’s something joyful or something unanticipated and very sad. And I think that’s really a huge privilege.”

This story was produced by the sponsored content department of the Anchorage Daily News in collaboration with Providence Alaska. The ADN newsroom was not involved in its production.