I had the privilege of visiting this week with Taylor West, Arielle Chinea and Austin Chapa as they complete their undergraduate degrees at UT Health San Antonio School of Nursing and prepare to enter a market with an acute shortage of skilled nurses.

West, Chinea and Chapa will have a range of professional options. As my colleague Shari Biediger reported in October, there are more than 3,000 openings for licensed vocational nurses (LVNs) and registered nurses (RNs) in Bexar County. University Health System, which staged a job fair at San Antonio Colonnade Hotel on Wednesday, has nearly 300 openings for nurses.

Hospitals and frontline health care workers continue to experience the pandemic on a daily basis, caring for very sick, mostly unvaccinated patients and their families in a pandemic that is out of sight, out of mind for much of the public. Stress levels and attrition rates are high even as wages go up.

There are 800 undergraduate and graduate students at the school of nursing, which boasts a 90% graduation rate. Even then, it is not nearly enough for a fast-growing city with a large population of people with chronic health problems.

There are other, smaller nursing programs at the Alamo Colleges, University of Incarnate Word, the nonprofit Hallmark University, and at least two for-profit schools. The UT Health San Antonio School of Nursing, however, represents the pinnacle of nursing education.

West, Chinea, Chapa and their fellow graduates are the future of health care in San Antonio. As anyone who has been hospitalized can attest, the experience is largely based on the quality and dedication of nurses, who represent the human connection in an increasingly bottom-line-driven industry.

The three students receiving bachelor of science degrees in nursing expressed passion for their profession and reflect the excellent education and significant experience they have acquired over the last four years. Our conversation left me far more inspired. All three graduated from local public schools and all three seek to go to work in the local market.

The pandemic has not deterred them.

“My mother (Lori Chapa) has been a nurse for 28 years at University Hospital, and I’ve always wanted to do something where I help people,” Chapa said. “I feel compassion for the people we serve.”

“I’m up for the challenge,” Chinea said. Speaking of her work with military veterans, she added, “The veterans come with a lot of experiences and challenges, but my hope is that I can help educate them and improve their lives.”

West and Chinea, current graduates, hope to build on their past intern work at “the VA,” the South Texas Veterans Health Care System, to win full-time jobs there now.

Arielle Chinea, BSN and Austin Chapa work with a robot that simulates a pediatric patient with a tracheostomy tube inside of the simulation lab at the UT School of Nursing Tuesday.
Arielle Chinea, BSN, and Austin Chapa work with a robot that simulates a pediatric patient with a tracheostomy tube inside of the simulation lab at the UT Health San Antonio School of Nursing on Tuesday. Credit: Bria Woods / San Antonio Report

Their enrollment in the federally-funded Advancing Community Oriented Registered Nurses (ACORN) program put them to work on close-knit clinical teams with physicians, physician aides, and technicians to educate patients on preventative care, healthier living, and the importance of having a primary care physician.

“I want all my patients to have access to a primary care physician in their lives,” West said. “Hopefully, there would be less sick people in our city. Good health for everyone is our goal.”

Chapa has one final semester to complete before he enters the job market. The median salary for registered nurses in San Antonio ranges from $65,000-70,000 with overtime bringing the annual compensation to $80,000, according to various employment sites. An online ad for the Children’s Hospital of San Antonio offers nurses a signing bonus.

“There is a nursing shortage, but you’ve seen how compassionate and smart and dedicated these graduates are, ready to serve people in need,” said Eileen Breslin, the long-serving dean of the nursing school. “I am actually optimistic about the future of health care as we move from treating diseases to addressing the underlying social determinants and moving toward promoting better health and more equitable health care.”

Breslin expects to retire in the spring of 2022 once her successor has been recruited in a national search, bringing to a close a 13-year term as dean of the nursing school and a 45-year career in nursing.

“Despite the pandemic, this is an amazing time at UT Health San Antonio, so the position is a very attractive one. Research grants are way up, more and more talented professionals are being recruited here, there is the new hospital; it’s actually a great time.”

In a city with a high rate of poverty and the attendant diseases, there is plenty of other nursing to be done beyond those hospitalized with COVID. The stress that nurses and other frontline health care workers have endured over the last 21 months have led to greater attrition and exacerbated previously existing shortages of skilled workers.

One question is whether the nursing shortage will be addressed in the city’s four-year, $200 million SA: Ready to Work program. It will be launched next year and aims to train and put to work as many as 40,000 unemployed and underemployed people living in or near the poverty level.

It’s a guaranteed good paying job for people with a passion for helping other people, and unlike so many other jobs, nurses probably won’t have to worry about being laid off in a pandemic.

Disclosure: UT Health San Antonio is a San Antonio Report business member.

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Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard, co-founder of the San Antonio Report, is now a freelance journalist.