During his three-and-half-year journey toward becoming a nurse, Jorge Juarez experienced a series of personal tragedies that would have caused most other people to give up. His parents died, his brother had a stroke, and he lost his house to a fire caused by lightning

But Juarez didn’t give up. In December 2005, at age 41, he and 16 of his fellow students became the first graduating class of the University of Nebraska Medical Center (UNMC) College of Nursing’s newly launched accelerated BSN degree program.

This remarkable story begins in 2002. Juarez had just retired from a 20-year career in the Air Force and was trying to decide what he wanted to do next in life. But shortly after his return to civilian life, his father had a stroke and his mother was diagnosed with cancer. The stroke left his father partially paralyzed and his mother ultimately went into a nursing home. Juarez traveled to Texas with his wife Lynelle and their two children to be with his parents.

It was this crisis that helped plant the idea of a possible career change into nursing. “This was one of the things that introduced me to the health professions,” Juarez explains. “I saw all the nurses who interacted with my mom and dad. It really had an impact on me.”

Then more crises came. In September 2002, his 50-year-old brother, who lived in North Carolina, had a stroke.

“Our family really had a rough time,” says Juarez. “It kind of made me look at myself. I have high blood pressure, too. It got me closer to the medical profession.”

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While Juarez was visiting his brother, his house in Bellevue, Neb., near Omaha, was struck by lightning and burned down. Fortunately, his family, including the dog and cat, got out of the house unharmed.

Juarez says this string of unhappy events gave him a lot to think about. “It gives you a new perspective on what you value. It brings you closer to your family and God.”

A Son’s Promise

While the family was having their house rebuilt, Juarez made the decision to pursue a nursing degree. “It’s a total 180 from what I was doing before,” he says, explaining that his job in the Air Force involved working primarily with computers and electronics in aircraft and satellites. “It was a total change in careers.”

He started applying to nursing schools. In January 2004 he was accepted into the accelerated BSN degree program at Creighton University Medical Center in Omaha.

That spring, his mother’s health deteriorated. “The chemo wasn’t working, the radiation wasn’t working. The tumor got worse,” Juarez says.

Sometime in April or May, she was admitted to hospice. She died on May 22.

The loss took a profound toll on Juarez. “My grades suffered,” he recalls. “So I pulled out [of the nursing program]. I tried to stay in the program. But looking back, I should have pulled out even sooner than I did.”

When he was visiting his mother in hospice, she would always tell the nurses that her son was in nursing school. “She was proud,” Juarez says. He made a promise to his mother that he would continue to pursue his nursing degree.

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When he came back to Bellevue after her death, he found he had to reapply to get back into Creighton’s program. He considered doing that, but he also looked into UNMC’s newly created accelerated BSN program, which had not existed back when he originally made his decision to pursue a nursing degree. The UNMC program, which was scheduled to hold its first classes in January 2005, was made possible by a $1.17 million grant from the federal Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA). The grant provides three years of funding to establish the program.

“Deciding between the two schools was a tough decision, because they both have stellar reputations,” Juarez remembers. He eventually found himself leaning toward the UNMC program for several reasons. For one thing, he says, “it was an exciting opportunity to be part of the first class at a college with such an outstanding reputation.”

Juarez spoke with Larry Hewitt, director of student services at the UNMC College of Nursing, and learned that he needed two more prerequisite courses before he could be admitted to the program. Though the classes he needed had begun a week earlier at Metropolitan Community College, he convinced officials to let him enroll. He took the courses, passed, and applied to the UNMC nursing program just in time to begin classes in January.

A Race to the Finish

Once Juarez began the accelerated program, he found his life moving at a frantic pace. In this particular program, students earn their BSN degree in just one year, taking classes for two semesters and in the summer, without the usual breaks. Clinical rotations and academics are also held on evenings and weekends. In contrast, the traditional accelerated BSN program typically takes five semesters over two-and-a-half years.

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Both Juarez and his wife describe the pace of the program as “insanity.” He was taking 27 or 28 credit hours at once, versus a typical undergraduate student load of 15 hours. “It was really hard,” he says.

In May of 2005, just as his first semester was about to end, tragedy struck again. Juarez’s father had a massive heart attack and died on May 23–exactly one year and a day from the date his mother had died.

But this time, Juarez kept going. He stayed in school and completed the first semester. “The [college] really worked with me,” he explains. “I finished the semester, then was able to [go to Texas] to be with my family.” He returned to Omaha to start the summer semester, then completed the home stretch of the program, culminating in his graduation at the end of the year.

According to Juarez, both he and his classmates were glad the accelerated program ended when it did. “I think when we got to a point towards the end, we were thinking that if it wasn’t going to end soon [we wouldn’t be able to keep up the pace much longer],” he says. “We were really burned out.”

For Juarez, the hardest part of the experience wasn’t the challenging academics, the clinical rotations or even the punishing pace–it was not being able to be there for his family.

“I barely saw my wife and kids,” he says. “My daughter is in a soccer club, my son is in band. I missed out on a lot of that. It was rough for all of us. Sometimes my kids would be doing their homework and I’d be sitting there doing mine, too. I’d come home to do my homework till the wee hours of the morning.”

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He admits his age made studying a challenge. “I fell back on my Air Force experience,” he says. Part of his military job involved teaching, which in turn required him to study a lot.

Setting a Good Example

Through tragedy and triumph, Jorge Juarez’s dream of becoming a nurse was always in the back of his mind. Today he is finally living that dream, working as a nurse on the Liver Special Care Unit at the Nebraska Medical Center.

“Nurses really make the difference,” he believes. “The way you interact with a patient really makes a difference. You can see it. In nursing school I had a preceptor, Kim Janssen, a nurse at [the Nebraska Medical Center’s] Clarkson Tower, who emphasized the importance of being a patient advocate. Helping people is a big draw for me.”

As for being a man in a female-dominated profession, Juarez acknowledges that some people still harbor prejudices about men in nursing. But for him, it’s not an issue.

“I don’t see it as any difference,” he maintains. “I don’t see genders. I see a nurse, a professional. I think more men should go into the nursing profession. I’m really glad I went into it.”

In addition to fulfilling the promise he made to his mother, Juarez says he also wanted to prove something to his children.

“I [didn’t do this] just for myself,” he emphasizes. “I really wanted to give a good example to my kids that you can do anything you set your mind to. If you really feel strongly about [accomplishing] something, you can do it.”

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