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It’s time for SIU Carbondale to start its own nursing program.

Joel Sambursky

Joel Sambursky

For many months, there has been a debate going on within the upper echelon of the SIU System administration about whether the Carbondale campus should be allowed to create its own nursing program. For me, it’s more than a debate about who offers what program where. It’s personal. And it affects all of us who call southern Illinois home.

Nearly two years ago, my wife, Samantha, was sent to St. Louis for monitoring and treatment by her nurse and doctor in Carbondale after they detected a heart arrhythmia in our unborn son. Two days later, Theodore was born prematurely in a dramatic sequence of events at Barnes Jewish Hospital and endured what would eventually become four long months in the neonatal intensive care unit in St. Louis Children’s Hospital.

Teddy, as he has affectionately been nicknamed, gained enough strength after his first month that doctors released him to the care of the Carbondale hospital. Samantha and I rejoiced as we watched his ambulance pull into the parking lot after his transport.

However, our joy was short lived. What no one had any way of knowing was that while Teddy was in St. Louis, he picked up a potentially deadly strain of bacteria. Sadly, we would later learn that Teddy had a very rare case of delayed onset GBS infection. There was a war raging inside our sons’ tiny body, and no one knew it.

For no reason, and a coincidence that I’ll never comprehend, Teddy showed no symptoms of sickness until he arrived in Carbondale. The doctor and nurses assumed, as we all did, that they would be receiving a healthy baby boy after a successful one-month stint in the NICU, yet within a few hours of his arrival Teddy was going into septic shock.

Gratefully, because of the quick-thinking of one of the few neonatal doctors in Carbondale, Teddy was given a chance for survival. The doctor started him on an antibiotics regimen, even before knowing with certainty what we were dealing with. That night, Teddy was whisked back to St. Louis in a helicopter. Despite many of the medical professionals in St. Louis expecting to deliver us the worst possible news parents could ever receive, Teddy fought hard and survived. But damage was done. He spent three more months in the hospital enduring many seizures and surgeries. He lost most of his hearing. He was alive, but with many challenges ahead.

There is much more to his story, but by the grace of God, Teddy is doing better than anyone expected. Teddy’s journey was remarkable. The care he received in St. Louis and Carbondale saved him.

While Teddy battled in St. Louis, Samantha and I did our best to support him while keeping all other areas of our life intact. There were lots of sleepless nights. We probably logged 30,000 miles on our vehicles going back and forth between Carbondale and St. Louis. Doing so while trying to manage a family, my business, and my obligations at SIU was the challenge of a lifetime for our family.

We spent a lot of time with Teddy’s doctors and nurses in St. Louis during the four months Teddy was hospitalized, many of whom we would learn had SIU ties. Many of them were graduates of the School of Nursing at SIU Edwardsville. I would often ask them questions about their experiences in college.

Many of them were raised in the St. Louis area and attended SIUE because it was close to home and had a good reputation. The SIUE School of Nursing promotes the opportunity for students to gain experience and jobs in the metropolitan area that it serves. And it’s working very well. SIUE is in a highly populated urban area, which is a stark difference from its sister school in Carbondale. It’s part of what make the two campuses unique.

Our family’s experience with Teddy makes us more sensitive to the medical needs of residents in Southern Illinois. We need more nurses. Lots of them. When the SIUE School of Nursing started its satellite program in Carbondale, it was with the understanding that it didn’t mean the Carbondale campus could never start a program. The SIUE program has had years to develop a robust satellite nursing program, but for a variety of reasons it has not filled all its available seats.

All indications are that there is a shortage of nurses — not only in Southern Illinois, but across the state. Illinois has as many as 5,000 residents per each new nursing graduate, yet experts believe that number should be ideally closer to 1,500 residents per new nursing graduate. The region’s largest private employer, Southern Illinois Healthcare, recognizes this need as well and has pledged $1 million to help start a new program to be run by SIUC. A private family foundation with SIUC ties has indicated it could provide at least $1.2 million in additional support.

This shortage in nurses needs to be addressed urgently and is not going to end anytime soon. The average age of nurses at SIH is 47. There are simply more nurses leaving the workforce than graduates coming in to replace them all while the aging population they serve is growing.

With this kind of private support and a need for nurses, SIUC can get its program up and running and become self-sufficient quickly. It will boost enrollment numbers and revenue for SIUC. More importantly, it will provide health care professionals for communities in need. Those students who graduate from SIUC with a focus on rural health care are likely to remain in Southern Illinois. That’s the same reason the SIU School of Medicine is going to have a group of its medical students spend all four years in Carbondale — they know it’s the best strategy to getting these new doctors to remain in southern Illinois serving the rural communities who need them.

SIUC wants and needs to operate its own nursing program. Currently, SIUC provides SIUE free space and covers the cost of utilities and maintenance. SIUE keeps all the tuition revenue for the students who enter the program in their junior and senior years. Most importantly for the SIU System, establishing an SIUC program will allow SIUE to reinvest the funds it spends on a satellite program in growing and expanding its school in Edwardsville.

SIH CEO Rex Budde recently stood before the SIU board and claimed that SIH could hire 75 nurses today. These jobs would have economic benefits to the region as well. This is a great example of a public body partnering with a private organization to address the needs of a region and work towards the common good of its community. This is the sort of collaboration that we should all long for as citizens and taxpayers who have a stake in the quality, access, and success of our higher education and medical resources.

It’s troubling to me that one campus is attempting to block the growth of another campus. It has been noted by many that SIUC didn’t object to SIUE starting “duplicate” programs like engineering or creative writing or an online MBA. These were all programs that SIUC had already had up and running. It should be the same for nursing. SIUE can have a School of Nursing and SIUC can have a nursing program. It just makes sense.

During those four months in St. Louis, there wasn’t a week that went by that we didn’t see somebody wearing SIU apparel in the hospital. Today, as SIU leaders continue this debate, I’m sure there are families going through similar situations as we did; logging the same mileage, carrying the same uncertainty, stress, anxiety, and financial burden along with them.

Some may see Teddy’s journey as anecdotal and personal. It is both, but I also believe it is perhaps just one example of many highlighting why this debate has much at stake for Southern Illinoisans.

As I reflect on our family’s story, it underscores the importance of access to health care for families in Southern Illinois. And, I am reminded that the access to health care can only be made possible if there are health care providers working in our region. I believe that can best be addressed by allowing both SIUE and SIUC to invest in educating nurses. The outcome of this decision will have a direct and profound effect on the lives of families across southern Illinois.

Let’s do what’s right for our region, for our students and for our universities: We need to establish a SIU Carbondale nursing program and we need to continue to be proud of all that the SIUE School of Nursing is and will continue to be. I know Teddy and his family certainly are.

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Joel W. Sambursky, of Carbondale, was appointed to the SIU Board of Trustees in September 2013.

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