Northern California native Cary Robinson graduated into a favorable local job market after earning his associate degree in nursing in 2018. He had been living in the San Diego area for a decade and studied nursing at nearby Palomar College, so he knew the region’s four major healthcare systems offered plenty of opportunities for ADN RNs. He also recognized that his skills were needed elsewhere, in a part of the country with limited access to care.
Robinson ultimately started his career in one of the most challenging settings a new nurse could choose: a Critical Access Hospital (CAH). CAH is the federal designation for facilities that provide 24-hour emergency and acute care services to patients in rural and remote locations. Some offer comprehensive support – from routine office visits to surgical procedures – but all have 25 or fewer inpatient beds. RNs and care teams frequently stabilize critical patients for transfer to larger hospitals or trauma centers.
Robinson remembers his early CAH experience at Marcus Daly Memorial Hospital in Hamilton, Montana, as a trial by fire. “The nearest hospital was an hour away,” he said. “I was cross trained in pretty much every department.” He gained experience quickly and soon advanced from novice to mentor.
“At one point, I was the most senior nurse on the floor, and I was only a nurse for three years,” he recalled. “The experience that I received while I was at that hospital was extensive.”
In 2022, Robinson moved with his family to North Carolina and accepted an RN position with Duke Raleigh Hospital. The Duke University Health System had a BSN requirement for ADN nurses, and he welcomed the incentive to go ahead and earn his bachelor’s degree.
Robinson graduated from the online RN to BSN program at Southern Utah University in August 2023. He likes the changes he’s seen in his nursing practice as a result.
“What [SUU] has really done for me is forced me to step out of my comfort zone, and forced me to think differently,” he said. “This nursing program is more focused on being a nurse in the community. Being a nurse as a part of a team. Taking the lead instead of just following.”
Caring for Patients and RNs
As Robinson progressed through the SUU online RN to BSN program, he developed new expertise in familiar subjects and built on his strengths as a nurse. He was also surprised by what he learned at times. In the course Nursing for Wellness in Older Adults, Robinson developed a more nuanced perspective on gerontology that is helping him serve one of his largest patient populations.
“We were to pick somebody to really interview and spend time with to help teach them about different aspects of medications and health, physical fitness, things to that extent,” he remembered. “It’s a different approach than what I had taken when I was in my ADN classes.”
Robinson also had the opportunity to learn leadership and advocacy skills by doing a project at his hospital. During the course Influencing Quality Within Healthcare, his professor asked students to join a committee at work. Robinson decided to form his own instead, to address the lingering impact of the COVID-19 pandemic in his unit.
“I created the morale committee because I could see where the morale had dropped through COVID,” he remembered. “We lost a lot of nurses, we lost a lot of patients, we lost a lot of coworkers,” he continued, “and the morale was tanked. It just tanked.”
Robinson says he also knew that many of his peers at the hospital were spending more time with patients than with their own families, due to the nature of the job. His goal was to restore a sense of belonging and joy to their work by having fun – together.
Robinson’s committee created games around song lyrics, movie quotes and trivia questions. Patients and staff joined in, and his whiteboard with the daily query became a hit. He started to notice that his surgery patients woke up a little faster when they had the stimulus of playing a game, and that physicians and nurses were singing the lyrics to each other. The committee was such a success that it’s now become a permanent fixture.
“I feel like it’s really increasing and boosting morale,” Robinson said proudly, noting that he has seen a difference in his coworkers and those they serve. “When a patient sees a doctor and a nurse singing a song, they stop [being] the doctor and the nurse and they become more human,” he said.
New Opportunity Through Education
Although earning a degree while working full-time was a new challenge for Robinson, learning online at home with his wife, Melodie, and their two sons, Isaac and Ian, helped him make it through. “My wife works from home,” he said. “My older son does his work online and my younger son does his schooling online. We all have our own little space.”
Now that he has graduated, Robinson believes his achievement justified the time and effort involved. “I feel like it’s been a good investment,” he said. “My bachelor’s degree opens up the door for many other avenues, management, master’s degree, other programs that weren’t open to me just having my associate degree.”
Robinson currently works as a Pre-Op, Post-Op PACU RN in the same-day surgery unit at Duke Raleigh Hospital. He believes the degree has given him more confidence to move into a nurse manager or administrator role, and to pursue additional education. He’s even thinking about becoming a nurse practitioner, so he can better advocate for women and chronic pain patients whose health concerns he feels are often dismissed.
“I think if you just listen to your patient and let them explain things to you, and actually just believe that there’s a problem, that’s pretty much half the battle,” he noted. “As a nurse, you can’t really fix it or take care of it. But as a nurse practitioner, you can do a little bit more research, maybe [send patients] the right direction so they can actually get some relief.”
Robinson says that finding the right degree fit at SUU helped him make the leap into learning online that allowed him to move forward professionally. “I had done all this research, and I kept coming back to Southern Utah,” he said. “This school was the most streamlined and most straightforward school I could find that just worked for my needs.”
He hopes to support other RNs thinking about earning their BSN online, regardless of whether their employer requires the degree. “I know it can be scary,” he acknowledged. “I would just tell people, just do it, get it done. You can handle anything for a short period of time.”
In retrospect, Robinson is glad he seized the opportunity to learn online at SUU. “I definitely feel like it’s been beneficial,” he said, “and worth it.”