Anthony Abdallah is trading his experience in the restaurant and wine business for a new career in health care.

The 43-year-old Portland man will graduate this spring from Southern Maine Community College’s nursing program. And he’s not the least bit hesitant about starting his new career in the midst of a global pandemic.

“I want to do something that felt more important and contribute to society, making it better,” Abdallah said of his decision to take care of patients instead of restaurant patrons. Working in a hospital, he said, “doesn’t scare me.”

Abdallah has lots of company.

Maine nursing programs are seeing high numbers of students applying and enrolling  – record numbers, in some cases –despite the pandemic and the intense pressures facing professional nurses, administrators say. Programs are full and there are waiting lists of applicants and a shortage of nurse instructors.

The experience in Maine mirrors national trends. Nationwide, enrollments rose 5.6 percent in 2020 despite COVID-19, according to the most recent data published by the American Association of Colleges of Nursing.


When the pandemic started filling hospital wards in Maine, Brenda Petersen, associate dean of nursing at the University of Southern Maine, expected nursing student numbers would fall.

“That did not happen,” Petersen said. “It has blown me away.”

USM’s enrollment for nurse programs totals about 690 nursing students, and USM has a wait list for students to get into nursing programs. Petersen said students want to join the ranks of  front-line nurses who have been working to save lives. “They want to be that (person), the unrelenting desire to be the nurse,” she said.

At the University of Maine, “we have not lost any students due to fears of the pandemic. We’ve seen the opposite. They’ve risen to the occasion,” said Kelley Strout, director of the nursing school at UMaine. The freshmen class numbered 115, a record high, Strout said. “I have not seen students run away from nursing.”

Nursing students – from left, Marlaina Stickney, Lea Yenawine and Elizabeth Perkins – work with a lifelike mannequin patient in a simulation lab set up like a hospital room at the University of Southern Maine in Portland on Friday. The mannequin can “speak” and exhibit distress as an instructor monitors the simulated exercise. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

At the University of New England’s nursing program, applications increased 8 percent from 2020 to 2021, said spokeswoman Sarah Delage. It’s not just nursing programs seeing more interest. UNE’s medical school, the only medical school in Maine, saw a 33 percent spike in applications. For UNE’s physician assistant program, the only PA program in Maine, applications jumped by 11 percent in the last year.

The pandemic has inspired future nurses, said Jennifer Morton, director of UNE’s nursing program. Even as the media has reported on dire conditions at hospitals and a shortage of nurses, “there’s a light being shined on the profession,” Morton said. Student nurses “want to be part of the solution.”


Southern Maine Community College’s nursing program is also full, with hundreds of students waiting to get into it.  “The nursing program this year is full. It’s full for the fall of 2022. For the spring of 2023, we’re starting to bring students into that class,” said Michael Nozdrovicky, who chairs SMCC’s Nursing Department.

SMCC enrollment numbered 147 students in 2011; in 2021 enrollment was 190, the college reported. Despite the pandemic, students want to be nurses, Nozdrovicky said.

He’s not surprised. At SMCC’s two-year registered nurse program, “for less than a $12,000 investment, in two years you start making $65,000,” Nozdrovicky said. It’s a good living, “but it’s not about the money,” he said. Nurses are compassionate and want to help save lives. “Nurses are not afraid of hard work.”

Michael Nozdrovicky, nursing chairman at Southern Maine Community College, says he’s not surprised by the rising enrollment. It’s a good living, Nozdrovicky said. “For less than a $12,000 investment, in two years you start making $65,000.” Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer


Nursing students nearing graduation offer a refrain of why they’re becoming a nurse. They want to help, both patients and medical workers, they said.

On a recent visit to a Southern Maine Community College nursing class, the topic was seizures.


“What are causes of seizures?” nursing instructor Keenan Hatch asked of his students wearing scrubs.

The class talked about causes: epilepsy, a chronic seizure order,  heavy alcohol use, heart disease and high fevers, especially with young children.

The class moved to simulation at a nursing home.

“This is Margaret,” Hatch introduced the mannequin. “She is 85, living in a long-term care facility. She had a car accident five years ago and suffered a severe concussion.” After the car crash, Margaret experienced a severe seizure and was diagnosed with epilepsy.”

Southern Maine Community College instructor Keenan Hatch uses a mannequin in his nursing class as he discusses what to do in the event of a seizure. “What do you do first?” Hatch asked his students. The nursing program at the South Portland school is full, with hundreds of students waiting to get in. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

In the long-term residence dining room, Margaret’s lunchtime was to be her chicken dinner. Suddenly she started having a seizure.

“What do you do first?” Hatch asked.


Nursing students got into action. They called 911 for help, laid Margaret on the floor, pushed objects around her, rested her head on a pillow. Students administered medicine to calm the seizure while waiting for the ambulance.

Soon Margaret was on her way to the hospital.

Between lessons, SMCC students talked about why they have chosen to become a nurse.

Jacob Rudolph, 29, of South Portland said he works as a CNA at Maine Medical Center, a job he’s been at for six years.

“I love that,” Rudolph said, adding his experience has confirmed that he wants to become a nurse. He wants to help both patients and existing nurses.

Nursing student Brittany Kennedy of Limington sets up a bed with a mannequin as she practices proper sterilization techniques for catheter insertion during a nursing class at Southern Maine Community College last week. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

He was inspired by how nurses made a difference in his grandmother’s heart surgery recovery.


“She explained that nurses who took the time to explain things to her made a huge difference in her overall recovery,” he said. “She felt less afraid.”

The students said they could see that the hospital nurses who helped train them are overwhelmed with too many patients, and can use help. “Their energy was off as they were trying to teach us,” Rudolph said. “They were swimming in their own problems. Seeing what they have been doing, they need a break.”

Nicole Goggin, 44, of Lovell said she traded a real estate career for nursing, inspired by her mother.

“My mom was director of nursing for 40 years,” Goggin said.  “She got sick, pancreatic cancer. I helped her through that process. After she passed. I realized that this is my calling.”

She decided to go into nursing before the pandemic hit, but “there’s even more need now. It doesn’t scare me at all,” she said. “We’ve got the same protocols. We all know what’s expected of us. And the hospitals are in a better position now than they were two years ago.”

In a simulation lab set up like a hospital room, nursing students Elizabeth Perkins, Marlaina Stickney, Lea Yenawine and Anna Britton discuss a training exercise they are about to start at the University of Southern Maine in Portland on Friday. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Sydney Gilbert, 22, of Portland said she’s always wanted to work in health care “and help people, especially now (with) everything that’s going on, how desperate they are for help. I see all the struggles that health care workers are facing.”



At a University of Southern Maine nursing class, seniors offered similar reasons for why they’re jumping into medical care.

During a class visit, four student nurses hovered over a training mannequin named “Brian Anderson.” Anderson suffered a leg injury from a motor vehicle accident.

The high-tech mannequin even talked about his pain, his worries.

“Hi, Mr. Anderson. I’m Marlina. I’ll be one of your nurses today,” said nursing student Marlina Stickney. “How are you feeling?”

Anderson said he was nervous. Suddenly, he morphed into a panic.


“Oh, oh! I’m short of breath! I can’t breathe. Help! I’m scared!” he cried.

The nurses raised his bed, provided him with oxygen, placed tubes in his nostrils. Anderson grew upset. “What are you doing?”

They explained the oxygen would help him breathe better. “Try and take some deep breaths, OK?” one said.

His vitals were stable, but he had difficulty breathing. Chest pains and anxiety continued. He was having a pulmonary embolism. The team of nurses called for a rapid response, more hospital hands to stabilize the patient.

After debriefing the hands-on lesson, instructor Aloyoise MacNaught shared her observations with the four nursing students.

“You did well,” MacNaught said. “You guys communicated well, delegated tasks to each other appropriately. Fantastic.”


Instructor Aloyoise MacNaught listens as nursing students review a training exercise they held in a simulated lab with a mannequin patient at the University of Southern Maine in Portland on Friday. “You did well,” MacNaught told students. “You guys communicated well, delegated tasks to each other appropriately. Fantastic.” Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

In four months, the students will become registered nurses, entering a health care field with enormous stresses: a nursing shortage, lingering COVID-19 patients, burned-out medical workers.

Stickney, 21, of Gardiner, said she’s unfazed by the tough work she’ll face. On a recent Thursday, Stickney said she was inspired by how nurses helped her father.

“Today is the anniversary of my dad’s death, that’s why I want to become a nurse, because of my dad,” Stickney said, trying to fight back tears. “He was 54. He died of cancer. He battled it for four years. Toward the end he was in hospice. Seeing the nurses do what they did, I want to be like them. I really appreciated the care he got. It drives my passion to be a nurse.”

Elizabeth Perkins, 22, of Lewiston said in high school she was a lifeguard at Kennedy Park in Lewiston. “I really liked helping people. It made me want to become a nurse.”

During the two years that COVID-19 hospitalized so many, student nurses did clinical training in hospital settings, which was tough. They’ve seen hurt, stress and exhaustion in hospital wards.

“We can really feel the impact of COVID,” said Perkins. Students trained for eight-hour shifts with nurses who are burnt out, nurses who have too many patients, and nurses called to work extra shifts because others were out sick with COVID-19, Perkins said.


Nursing students Jacob Rudolph of South Portland, left, and Tim Brown of Portland work together during classes at Southern Maine Community College. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

The pandemic has also been difficult for patients, she said.

“The hardest was pediatrics,” Perkins said. “To see kids in pain or crisis. COVID put a lot of pressure on families. The kids came in with non-accidental trauma,” or domestic abuse.

Lea Yenawine, 21, of Hopkinton, Mass., saw how patients and medical workers were stressed out with staffers out with COVID-19. “But at the same time it brought us closer. I felt connected to people I was working with.”


A nursing shortage in Maine and nationwide, especially in hospital wards, has made the tough job even more challenging. And it’s intensified the demand for students.

David Daigler, president of the Maine Community College System, testified to state lawmakers Tuesday that there’s an expected shortage of 3,200 nurses statewide by 2025. That is largely a result of baby boomer nurses retiring combined with a growing population of senior citizens, which means more patients.


Nursing students Nicole Goggin, and Anthony Abdallah treat a manikin as they practice proper technique in the event of a seizure, at Southern Maine Community College. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

But that shortage could be worse, given that the Maine Nursing Action Coalition report was done in 2017 and did not account for two years of a pandemic that further stretched and exhausted nurses.

“The nursing shortage we face is not a result of COVID-19, though the pandemic has (exacerbated) it,” Daigler said in his written testimony. “It will not go away when the pandemic subsides.” Critical care nurses have been stressed to the brink, he said.

A legislative proposal sponsored by Sen. Mattie Daughtry, D-Brunswick, seeks to expand registered nursing programs statewide to help relieve the nursing shortage. The bill would provide community colleges across Maine with an additional $2.5 million in 2022-23, allowing the system to hire 33 full-time and 20 part-time nursing faculty, along with additional laboratory equipment, simulation mannequins, computers, monitors, hospital beds and other supplies.

As planned, the community college system would be able grow the annual number of registered nurse graduates from the current 209 to 419, Daigler said.

Investing in more nursing programs would be a long-term money saver because hospitals are now filling nurse vacancies by hiring traveling nurses, who earn more money and are more expensive to employ. And when staffing needs cannot be met, hospitals are forced to redirect elective care to out-of-state hospitals or delay nonemergency care, he said.

If the measure is approved by legislators, the community college system would launch the first new class of additional nurse candidates as early as this summer, Daigler said, saying the need for more nurses is critical to help both patients and exhausted nurses.


At the University of Southern Maine, students who started their college programs in 2018 said that, even if they knew a pandemic was headed our way, they would still want to become nurses.

“One hundred percent,” said Anna Britton, 28, of Cape Elizabeth, as the other three students in the room nodded in agreement.

“There’s a big need. It comes down to most people go into nursing because they want to help people,” she said. “Right now, so many people need help. Not only patients, but nurses. There needs to be more of us.”

They also have seen how appreciation from the public has lifted the spirits of medical workers in the trenches, Britton said. Even as nursing students, they often hear, “Thank you so much,” she said. “I take pride being a nursing student.”

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