Event to commemorate 150th founding of former MGH nursing school shows how bond with MGH Institute continues
Nursing education connected to Massachusetts General Hospital has a bright future, thanks to the strength of the relationship between the MGH Institute of Health Professions and the MGH Nurses Alumni Association (NAA).
That message was part of weekend celebration that commemorated the 150th anniversary of the 1873 founding of the hospital’s three-year diploma school. More than 160 people gathered on the IHP campus on September 23, the first day of the two-day event.
“They are our legacy,” Barbara Dunderdale, the event’s chair, said of the Institute’s work in carrying on the educational mission of the diploma school. “It’s really a very rich heritage.”
The Massachusetts General Hospital School of Nursing was among the first created in the country and graduated more than 7,000 nurses by the time it closed in 1981 as the country’s oldest continuously operating nursing school.
The closure was promoted by a changing education market that was moving towards educating and hiring baccalaureate-prepared nurses. From that, though, came the decision to launch the MGH Institute in 1977, whose academic offerings included one of the country’s first direct-entry nursing master’s programs.
Over the past four-plus decades, the bond between the NAA and the IHP has only become stronger. Today, the NAA awards five annual scholarships to MGH Institute nursing students to help them carry on a tradition of excellent nursing care that continues with the scores of NAA members who still provide patient care. The organization also helps fund the Institute’s annual gala.
It’s a connection that leaders at the Institute don’t take lightly.
“We know we have big shoes to fill,” Institute President Dr. Paula Milone-Nuzzo told the audience. “I hope you are proud of the work we have done.”
Dr. Kenneth White, Dean of the Institute’s School of Nursing, acknowledged the excellence of the former hospital’s nursing graduates, which was warmly received by the many NAA members in attendance and the IHP faculty and staff who also attended.
“They have the legacy of what it meant to be a Massachusetts General Hospital nurse,” he said. “And when you are a Massachusetts General Hospital nurse, it meant having the highest standards.”
The audience also heard from nursing students Erika Koh, BSN ’24 and Thong Ta, MS-NU ’25, and alums Tara Harris, BSN ’23, and Jennifer Duran, DNP ’23, who is also an instructor and clinical lab coordinator in the SON. They discussed such things as why they decided to become a nurse and their education at the IHP. “We not only learn from our faculty, we learn from each other,” said Koh. “Everyone wants you to succeed.”
Recognizing a Nursing Legend
A common thread throughout the day’s program was the recognition of Ruth Sleeper.
Sleeper graduated from the MGH School of Nursing in 1922 and went on to become the school’s assistant superintendent in 1933. From 1946 to 1966, she served as director of both the MGH Department of Nursing and the nursing school. She also was instrumental in the creation of the MGH Institute, where the school’s first students were taught in the former Ruth Sleeper Hall on the hospital campus. Recently, a suite in the hospital’s Bulfinch building was named in her honor.
Her connection to the IHP remains front and center, thanks to the 2019 creation of the Ruth Sleeper Nursing Center for Clinical Education. The nurse-led screening, referral, education, and support resource for Charlestown and Greater Boston-area residents was funded by a gift from 1958 MGH nursing school graduate May Chin and her husband, Tom.
May Chin remembers Sleeper fondly as a caring teacher and innovator who worked to change the profession, recalling how nurses at the time were mainly assigned to household tasks like changing bed sheets and not allowed to use technology to treat patients.
“She was a phenomenal woman. She was kind, generous and compassionate. She was our role model,” said Chin. “She made quite the impression on everyone.”
“She was way ahead of her time,” added Dr. Elaine Tagliareni, the Institute’s director of faculty development and a professor in the School of Nursing, who called Sleeper a “futurist.” “She understood leadership and the need for education.”
Chin noted that Sleeper encouraged nurses to get a college degree. As the daughter of Chinese immigrants, Chin took that message to heart, first earning a bachelor’s degree in nursing followed by a master’s in nursing administration and an MBA.
“She encouraged lifelong learning, but also said you have to have the credentials,” Chin explained.
Today, thanks to the Chins’ donation, the Sleeper Center continues the legacy of a dynamic and well-loved teacher who made education the hallmark of her nursing career.
Looking to the Future
Despite all that good news, White said the nursing profession is facing some monumental challenges in the future.
“We are on the cusp of a new reality in nursing,” he said, explaining that the COVID-19 pandemic “brought so many things to the forefront” like staffing needs, compensation issues, and self-care for nurses and physicians, all of which still need to be dealt with.
The statistics, however, are even more sobering. One in five nurses has left the profession since the pandemic began despite increased wages and better work schedules, he said. And with most of the Baby Boomer generation of nurses expected to be retired within the next decade, he noted filling a growing nursing shortage will continue to be a major challenge.
White was quick to note that the anticipated “great resignation” in nursing did not materialize, and the health crisis prompted hospital administrators to focus on working conditions. It also brought technological innovation like telehealth which has proved to be a major innovation.
The future, Tagliareni said, will involve more simulation education, such as what the School of Nursing regularly uses on campus to educate nursing students to develop better clinical judgment which leads to improved patient care. She also predicted that nurses will be called upon to identify and act on complex social, economic, and environmental factors that influence health while becoming more acutely aware of justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion issues that often influence how patients are treated.
The bottom line, White said, will always remain the same: “Our goal is to get the best and brightest people into nursing.”
His words and those of other presenters touched many of the audience members.
“There’s a camaraderie here,” said Deborah Belisle, who more than 50 years after graduating from the diploma school, recently earned her Doctor of Nursing Practice and continues to practice on Cape Cod. “We all know where we came from. We all know where we’ve been.”
For Susan Gabriel, a 1980 MGH nursing graduate, the message was a bit simpler. “Once a nurse, always a nurse,” she said.
It was clear that no one in the crowd could disagree with that.
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