When the World Health Organization declared 2020 the International Year of the Nurse and Midwife, alumnae Dr. Candace Sandal and Dr. Bernadette Thomas had an idea.
Anyone whose health care journey was championed by a nurse will celebrate the World Health Organization’s decision to decree 2020 the International Year of the Nurse and Midwife, in honor of Florence Nightingale’s 200th birthday.
That’s especially notable considering the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the International Council of Nurses, “The courageous work of nurses and other health care workers in the face of coronavirus does honor to the Year of the Nurse and Midwife 2020. Florence would be proud of you.”
Proud, too, are Wilmington University alumnae Dr. Candace Sandal and Dr. Bernadette Thomas. Both are passionate ambassadors of their alma mater and tireless in their efforts to support aspiring nurses and serve as industry advocates. They have a good role model: Nightingale also used advocacy in the development of modern nursing.
COVID-19 disrupted the health care system. Drs. Sandal and Thomas saw the writing on the wall and realized that students needed support. They gave every ounce of compassion and energy they had during the pandemic, and sadly, the pressure was too much for some. Drs. Sandal and Thomas recognized the intense struggles that nurses endured and nursing students feared.
That’s why they founded The Future of Nursing Excellence Scholarship at WilmU — with funds out of their own pockets. Nursing, after all, is about care, and care is about giving back. The alumnae want to ensure that everyone, regardless of their financial limitations, can thrive in this noble profession.
The world needs nine million more nurses and midwives to achieve universal health coverage by 2030. If there was ever a time to support current and future nursing and health sciences students, this is it.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics lists Registered Nursing among the top occupations through 2026. COVID-19 aside, the RN workforce in the U.S. is expected to grow from 2.9 million in 2016 to 3.4 million in 2026.
That growth, according to the bureau, will occur for several reasons: an increased emphasis on preventive care; escalating rates of chronic conditions like diabetes and obesity; and demand for services from baby boomers, who are living longer. Since these stats came out before the pandemic hit, the need for nurses is likely more dire than the data indicates.
A world of possibilities lies ahead for nurses, and it’s reasonable to assume that more people will take advantage of them. But becoming a nurse isn’t just about money or titles; it’s about a calling. More to the point: It’s about being free enough from life’s distractions to hear the calling.
“We understand the challenges,” says Dr. Sandal. “We have seen the stark images of nurses exposed to COVID-19 and other illnesses, many without proper personal protective equipment. We know we are going to be about 120,000 nurses short in our country alone. We also know that working incredibly long hours impacts young people’s decisions about going into the profession.”
On the other hand, Dr. Sandal says, “I have been so privileged to see into the window of people’s lives that are never shared otherwise. I am there during their private moments of elation and distress. Every single day, I feel like I make a difference.”
Drs. Sandal and Thomas are passionate about WilmU nursing students because they attribute much of their success to their alma mater. Yet, when you fuse the toll that COVID-19 took on nurses with challenging coursework, it’s no wonder students feel pressured.
Created in May of 2020, as the virus continued to advance, The Future of Nursing Excellence Scholarship that honors Nightingale’s birthday is designed to offer hope to nursing and health sciences students by easing their financial burdens. The scholarship is privately funded, but donations are certainly welcomed.
“It’s incredible that Drs. Sandal and Thomas developed such a strong and lasting relationship at WilmU,” says Development Director Felicia Quinn, “and are now generous and kind enough to give back to our nursing and health sciences students.”
“Yes, it’s coming out of our own pockets, and we hope it becomes a successful annual offering as long as we can support it,” says Dr. Thomas. “This is our way of telling students that even if they can’t see us while they’re going through their journeys, the scholarship is our way of letting them know that people like us are screaming, ‘You can do this! Whether you crawl, walk, run, or climb through it, we’re there.’ And that’s because we got that same attention at Wilmington. Do you see what our University does to people?”
“It seems innate that nurses and health professionals desire to make a difference since that was the motivation for many to enter the profession,” says College of Health Professions Dean Dr. Denise Wells. “Yet, WilmU further inspires our faculty, students and alumni to pay it forward. Our institutional values speak of caring and respect for one another. Drs. Sandal and Thomas are exhibiting those very beliefs in their thoughtful actions.”
The WilmU Journey
Dr. Sandal holds five degrees: RN, BSN, MSN, DNP, and an MBA in Health Care Administration from WilmU, where she taught for 23 years for the colleges of Health Professions, and Arts and Sciences. She also held several nursing positions at St. Francis Hospital in Wilmington. In 2016, she started a practice in Newark, Delaware, called Up and Away Travel Health, and offers medical consultations, vaccines, and information before clients travel abroad. The MBA was relevant to Dr. Sandal because it opened doors to the corporate medical world. She established and implemented ongoing continuing education programs across the Dow/DuPont global sites for nurses and nurse practitioners, physicians’ assistants, and physicians. Additionally, she managed eight Health Services sites across DuPont.
Dr. Thomas earned three degrees, a BSN, MSN, and DNP, the latter two from WilmU, where for nine years she was a hybrid and distance learning adjunct for the College of Health Professions. Before nursing, she served in the military as a senior airman of the U.S. Air Force 31st Medical Group, then left to pursue a BSN at the University of Maryland. Dr. Thomas has worked as a family nurse practitioner at several facilities in Delaware and Maryland and was a lead corporate health and wellness nurse practitioner for JP Morgan Chase. In 2019, she founded the Monarch Wellness Center in Wilmington, where she focuses on the health and wellness of patients with thyroid diseases and provides adjunct care to patients with other autoimmune diseases.
Dr. Thomas was a student of Dr. Sandal’s. Both put teaching on hold to focus on their practices, but their concern for student welfare and success never waned.
“Wilmington opened me up to a whole world of awesomeness,” says Dr. Thomas. “I could be a part of great medical groups, in primary care, management, or internal medicine. But I got more than degrees from WilmU. I met people who encouraged me and made me feel strong —that I could do anything. Dr. Sandal was a role model. I looked at her and wanted to be like her.”
The feeling is mutual for Dr. Sandal. “One of the joys of teaching is seeing the lightbulb go on,” she says. “Bernadette was exceptional, always motivated. She was able to really absorb the information. I was fortunate enough to have her work with me at my clinic, and she brought a great deal of kindness to the job.”
Dr. Thomas also brought with her an authentic view of hardship. “I was a foster kid,” she says. “I started out differently, and there weren’t many people who were beside me during my journey. It wasn’t until I got to WilmU and met people with humility and kindness. When I started teaching there, it was like family. That’s why the University was such a huge deal.”
In addition to running her practice, Dr. Thomas recently began teaching online at Georgetown University, focusing on Pathophysiology and Pharmacology. “Long ago, you couldn’t have paid me to say I teach,” says Dr. Thomas. “But WilmU gave me the tools, and now I can do so much with them.”
Dr. Sandal was part of an advanced practice nursing (APN) advocacy group that approached Delaware Sen. Tom Carper in Washington D.C., and lobbied for full practice authority legislation for nurse practitioners in Delaware. As a result, she served on the APN Council to successfully achieve full practice authority. Subsequently, legislation was approved, granting APNs independent practice. (Dr. Thomas was a DNP student then, and attended several of the group’s meetings.) Passed in July of 2015, during the last hours of the 148th General Assembly legislative session, the Advanced Practice Nurse Act grants nurse practitioners and other advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs) independent practice after meeting certain requirements, meaning, they are free to practice without the oversight of a physician. SB 57 changed the title of Advanced Practice Nurse to Advanced Practice Registered Nurse. Senate Bill 101 included provisions regarding the scope of practice for APRNs.
“We worked for a long time with the Advanced Practice Nurse Council of Delaware,” says Dr. Sandal. According to its website, the council advocates for advanced nurses through legislative channels and regulatory activity, resulting in beneficial outcomes for Delaware citizens.
Drs. Sandal and Thomas have advocated for nurses most of their lives through teaching and service. The Future of Nursing Excellence Scholarship expands that support.
“The need is great,” says Dr. Sandal. “This was born of an idea that we can give back to nursing. We see the value. We want to make a small ripple in a big area.”
WilmU students Brenda Brunskill and Jennifer Washkalavitch were the first recipients of the scholarship in June. Washkalavitch is on track to complete her BSN in early 2021; Brunskill is working on her B.S. in Health Sciences.
“This scholarship is incredibly meaningful to me,” Washkalavitch says. “I began my path to the BSN a few years ago but was interrupted due to breast cancer. I questioned if moving forward was even a possibility. At the end of my treatment, I became even more motivated to continue.”
Brunskill is equally appreciative. “I’m very grateful because the scholarship allows me to take additional classes at a faster pace and provides financial relief,” she says. “Witnessing how team members of a hospital can come together and provide the utmost care during this unprecedented time has encouraged me to move forward. Helping others is a passion of mine.”
As arduous as the pandemic has been, both beneficiaries found inspiration. They were nurturing people who were gravely ill, not to mention terrified. That meant the world to them.
COVID-19 has obviously tested the health care industry. But even Florence Nightingale said that there was no part of her life upon which she could look back without pain. Then again, she said, “I attribute my success to this: I never gave or took an excuse.”
“Being a student is hard, the material is hard, physically, spiritually and emotionally,” says Dr. Thomas. “It’s difficult to juggle life and education. We know that these students need to breathe, to have relief from all the demands. We want to hold their hands and offer compassion and empathy throughout their journeys. There is no burden to me to do that.”
Nurses power through hardship, she adds. “And we change lives.”
Drs. Sandal and Thomas invite COHP alumni or other members of the WilmU community to join with them in supporting aspiring nurses and health care professionals. Should you wish to donate, please visit wilmu.edu/giving. The scholarship is listed as a designation option on the online gift form.