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The Transition Game

Many Are Finding New, Rewarding Careers in Health Care

One worked as an electrician, another as an advertising production specialist, and a third for the post office. They all had decent jobs with good companies, but something was missing from the equation in each case. So the individuals in question transitioned into careers in health care, and became part of a nationwide trend in the process.

Ron St. Peter, a 14-year veteran of the U.S. Postal Service, had a steady career with good benefits. But something was missing.
“It was a good job, but in some ways it wasn’t rewarding,” he told BusinessWest. “It didn’t fulfill my inner drive for knowledge, to learn, and to make a difference.”

St. Peter’s mother-in-law is a nurse, and she “put a bug” in his ear to test the waters in health care, he said. So he took classes in Anatomy and Biology at Holyoke Community College, and then decided he was intrigued enough to begin training as a nurse.

Today, St. Peter is continuing his education while working at Baystate Medical Center as a nursing assistant in the surgical stepdown unit, which is where patients go directly after surgery. He’d eventually like to work in the emergency room or intensive care unit — “I’d like that fast-paced, quick-decision environment where I can apply the knowledge I’ve gained and help people who really need it” — and knows he can likely write his own ticket to whatever nursing niche he wants.
That’s because the nation is in the midst of a nursing shortage that’s expected to get worse, for several reasons: Americans are living longer, the average age of nurses is currently in the 40s, and colleges are grappling with a shortage of nurse educators to teach the next generation.

So, yes, St. Peter and many others can indeed call their own shots, which is why nursing has become an attractive second career option for many. And it’s not just nursing.

Depending on the region, medical facilities nationwide are struggling with shortages of physicians and specialists ranging from physical therapists to laboratory technicians — and people working within other business sectors are taking notice.

Consider, for example, Elizabeth Bresnahan, a 1994 graduate of Western New England College, who parlayed a degree in Business Administration into a nine-year stint as an analyst with the national Dow Jones call center.

“I did lots of reporting, spreadsheets, databases, focusing on agent productivity and making things more efficient, and training my co-workers in using applications,” she said — not exactly the seeds of a career in health care.

But when the company began outsourcing many of its operations, Bresnahan saw the writing on the wall as an opportunity.

“Having a family with two small boys, my perspective started to change,” she said. “The Monday-to-Friday grind wasn’t working, and I wanted something with a little more flexibility.” She also wanted something stable in which she could advance her career without constant fear of downsizing. “Western Mass. is tough. It’s hard to find a place where you can grow and move up professionally. I didn’t want to keep starting over every two or three years.”

And as long as people get sick, she said, there will always be opportunities to help them get well. So she decided to enroll in the Respiratory Therapy program at Springfield Technical Community College, a track that tends to attract people with work experience who are looking for second careers, as opposed to recent high-school graduates.

In this issue, BusinessWest talks with several local professionals who have made, or are making, a transition into health care as a second career. The challenges of going back to school, especially after starting a family, can be daunting, but they say the rewards of a stable career with plenty of personal fulfillment are worth the effort.

Prescription for Change

A desire for a more people-oriented career played into Marla Zlotnick’s decision to switch from a 10-year stint in advertising to a new career as a pharmacy technician.

“I was a print producer — I coordinated print advertising and magazine advertising for ad agencies, and trafficking of the materials and print buying,” she said.

But she had always been oriented to community service, she explained, and longed for something with more contact with the public. Through her exposure to hospitals in her advertising career, she had come to see health care workers as a dynamic, caring group of people. So she joined them, starting with Target, which offers on-the-job training to new pharmacy techs as they work toward certification.

She now works for Baystate Health, helping pharmacists fill prescriptions and handling everything from insurance issues to inventory and ordering — and, of course, dealing with patients at the register. It’s an entry-level position, but one that affords her crucial exposure — not only to the field of pharmacy, but also to other medical professionals.

“I’ve had an opportunity to work with doctors, nurses, and patients,” she said. “Now I can decide, moving forward, if I want to go to pharmacy school, or nursing school, or something else.”

With members of the massive Baby Boom generation entering their senior years, openings for nurses, physical therapists, medical assistants, health-information technicians, and physician assistants in particular are expected to multiply over the next seven years, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In addition, even health fields that don’t involve direct care of very ill patients, such as dieticians and counselors, are expected to grow faster than average through 2014.

Although the trend toward health care as a second career has been gaining steam in recent years, the sector has long been viewed as a stable industry for people looking for a change. Ask Paul Podmore.

It was 1994, and Podmore — an electrician with a decade of experience under his toolbelt, mainly wiring residential homes — was feeling the itch to return to school and start a second career. But what career?

He got married early that summer, and just two weeks after the wedding, his wife wound up hospitalized at UMass Medical Center in Worcester for more than two months. “I spent pretty much every day there, helping the nurses take care of her,” he said. “One of the nurses on the night shift suggested that I think about going to nursing school, which I hadn’t even thought of.”

Like St. Peter, Podmore had nurses in his family — two sisters and his mother-in-law, to be exact — and soon he decided he’d give that world a try, so he enrolled in a program at UMass Amherst, graduating in 1996.

“I’ve been doing this ever since,” he said, spending a decade in the cardiac telemetry unit at Mercy Medical Center before moving to the cardiac catheter lab at Baystate Medical Center for 17 months, then recently returning to Mercy as a nurse in the fast-paced Emergency Department.

Podmore said he enjoys interacting with people from all walks of life on the job, but admits his work often doesn’t make for cheerful dinner-table chat.

“You have to be hardworking, and you have to be compassionate. It’s humbling at some points. You’re seeing people at the core of who they are,” he told BusinessWest.

What makes the intensity worthwhile, he said, is being able to make a difference at that terrible moment in someone’s life.

“You’re working there, helping the doctor, and you see a person in the middle of a heart attack, screaming or moaning and having chest pain,” he said. “Then the blockage is opened, and a few minutes later the patient is feeling better. To be part of a team that does that, to see people improve, is very rewarding.”

Like nursing, respiratory therapy offers a range of work schedules and settings — from hospitals to nursing homes to home care — that can help families balance work and home life, Bresnahan said. But she, like the others, mainly touts the direct-care aspects of the job, and the way it promises to keep her on her toes.

“Numbers don’t lie,” she said of her former job. “One thing leads to another leads to another. But here, it’s changing all the time, and you have to be flexible. You’re working with people, not with spreadsheets or databases. Just think of the impact you have on the patient — everyone needs to breathe, and as the respiratory therapist, you have a lot of control over that.”

Counting the Cost

That’s a theme that others who spoke with BusinessWest kept returning to — the satisfaction gained from helping people at a time of need. To many such career-switchers, it’s worth the inevitable financial hit that comes not only from the loss of a steady income but the cost of tuition.

“It has been difficult, but my wife has been really understanding, and she has enabled us financially to take the loss in pay,” said St. Peter. “I’ve really enjoyed school, and I enjoy the health field now that I’m in it. The opportunities, the technology, and the ability to advance all intrigue me.”

Bresnahan called her decision very stressful and difficult, “but my husband has been very supportive,” she said. “We planned ahead and tried to anticipate what would happen. I was accustomed to being employed full-time, and I have a part-time job now.

“I also have to factor in school,” she continued. “I need time to study, but I also have a family, and the kids have homework. The first time around, going to WNEC, I only had to worry about myself, but now I have to worry about everyone around me. There’s a lot more riding on it this time, so I’m definitely taking it more seriously than before.”

The other side of the coin, said Podmore, is that health care can often provide needed scheduling flexibility for families. In fact, he was able to remain home on weekdays with his twin boys for two years, working only weekends and allowing his wife to continue her career.

“The other good thing is that this field is not dependent on the economy,” he said. “You might not get rich, but you can always find a job that provides a good, steady income.”

“It’s definitely a transition, but it’s been great,” said Zlotnick. “You have to be prepared to start again, but I think being in this field is definitely worth it.”v

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