When Pennsylvania native Juanita Helwig was 12 years old, her mom was diagnosed with cancer. Watching her battle the disease for many years and also return to school for her GED and become a Licensed Practical Nurse when Juanita was nine years old had quite the impact—and influenced her own path. “Seeing what she had done rubbed off on both my younger sister and I, and we both went on to become nurses,” says Juanita, who had started her post-high school career as a medical transcriptionist at Geisinger Medical Center, working the evening shift. When the opportunity arose to attend nursing school during the day through Geisinger’s nursing diploma program, she jumped at it. In 1992, Juanita became a Registered Nurse.
Gaining pediatric oncology experience
Juanita worked on a unit where she cared for both adolescent and adult patients for two years before moving to Geisinger’s brand-new Janet Weis Children’s Hospital when it was built in 1994. Janet Weis Children’s Hospital third floor is the only inpatient unit that administers chemotherapy to pediatric oncology patients at Geisinger. She has worked with children of all ages for her entire career other than a stint as a nurse at Geisinger Shamokin Area Community Hospital.
In 2004, Juanita returned to the Janet Weis Children’s Hospital full time on the Adolescent Oncology Unit. In recent years, she also worked part time for Visiting Nurse Association Private Duty and as a substitute school nurse. “Geisinger is a wonderful place to work,” says Juanita. “I’ve had great opportunities here and I’m grateful for that.”
Motivated to earn a BSN
In November 2015, Juanita decided “somewhat on a whim” to check out BSN programs. “I never pictured myself going back to school, but I’d been hearing for a while about the push for all nurses at Geisinger and elsewhere to hold a BSN,” she says. “I decided I didn’t want someone to have to tell me to do it. I wanted to further my education on my own terms.”
On the recommendation of a few colleagues, she looked at American Sentinel University, an educational partner of Geisinger. “The flexibility of the program was the main thing that attracted me at first,” Juanita says. She started the program in February 2016. “I’d heard it was a great BSN program too, and it definitely has been. I’ve been a nurse for so long, but this pushed me to think beyond bedside nursing. I’ve enjoyed the classes and learned a lot.”
Challenges along the way
Juanita is working on the BSN, and hopes to complete the program in spring 2018, when she might continue on for her MSN, case management specialization. It hasn’t been easy, but she has kept at it. Earlier this year, a routine doctor appointment uncovered a number of issues that landed Juanita in the hospital for back-to-back surgeries, pneumonia, and other issues. “Catie Long, my American Sentinel advisor has been right there by my side through it all,” she says. “We talk like friends, and she’s gone out of her way to help me navigate the difficult times and map out a plan to finish what I started.” Her husband, son, extended family and Geisinger family have also been wonderful, Juanita adds. “I have amazing coworkers who have helped me through.”
A well-deserved award
Although she is currently on medical leave, Juanita will return to work in the summer. In June, American Sentinel will honor her as a recipient of the Richard W. Oliver Merit Award for her “originality of thought and thoroughness of study.” The accolade, she says, deepens her gratitude toward the university. “It’s truly such an honor,” Juanita says. “I was very nervous to return to school, but I’ve been so amazed by the help I’ve received from everyone at American Sentinel.”
Juanita’s education will help expand her career options, no matter what she does next. “It is very clear to me how much American Sentinel wants students to succeed. The professors and the entire staff have been helpful and encouraging. I’ve had an overwhelmingly great support system, and I’m excited about the future.”
Inspired by Juanita’s story? A BSN is ideal for nurses who want to expand their knowledge base, become more marketable and enjoy greater career stability and mobility. Specialized knowledge forms the foundation of nursing and when you acquire new knowledge, you can apply it to nursing practice in ways that enhance patient care and improve outcomes.