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October 18, 2010

School of Nursing Building's Grand Opening accompanied by memories of Gustav

In early September 2008, just days after Hurricane Gustav made landfall, national media outlets quickly moved on as life appeared to be returning to normal in southern Louisiana.

But for many at the University of Louisiana at Monroe, especially those affiliated with the College of Health Sciences, the storm's impact would not so readily recede. An estimated 300 patients had filled ULM's Fant-Ewing Coliseum, which was transformed into a Special Needs Shelter after Gustav's powerful winds and rains forced thousands of Louisianans to evacuate to northeast Louisiana.

And even as ULM faculty, staff and students provided caregiving to the evacuees, they simultaneously hustled around-the-clock to relocate several offices, labs and classrooms when Gustav's rains compromised the roof of the Nursing Building and caused a significant amount of water damage.

So it was with a great enthusiasm and a spirit of gratitude that the community joined the ULM family at the Grand Opening of the newly remodeled building on Friday, Oct. 8, and celebrated the School of Nursing's 50th anniversary with a lineup of speakers and tours of each floor of the three-story building, more than two years after Hurricane Gustav first left its imprint.

College of Health Sciences Dean Denny Ryman recalled the hurricane's effect on the building, when what was "a little hole that became a flood." Looking out at the crowded auditorium in the newly reopened building, he said he was struck by the persistence of the faculty, staff and students in the face of adversity.

"It was a very interesting time, but we really did continue ... And I'd like to express my gratitude to someone higher upstairs," Ryman said, pointing upward, with a smile.

Before Dean Ryman's remarks, Interim President Stephen Richters expressed his appreciation for those affected, who had lived "quite a nomadic existence" for a two-year period as they found temporary homes in the library and elsewhere across campus

Richters also commended the university-community partnerships that extended ULM's classrooms and labs into local hospitals and other treatment facilities, creating a seamless transition for the clinical students affected by the move.

"It might have been a disaster," he said, "But due to the outstanding efforts of so many of you, it wasn't."

Before the tours, representatives from each area of the College of Health Sciences also spoke about what the return to their permanent home meant.

"Our students rallied and came through," said Debbie Wisenor, department head of Medical Laboratory Science at ULM. "Now we have a beautiful, state-of-the art facility. It is something we'll never take for granted."

Brett Bennett, department head of radiologic technology, spoke of the 40-year history of the ULM program he directs, one of only 34 such bachelor's programs in existence in the United States.

Of the 62 students employed at the time the Nursing Building was shuttered, every since one graduated, according to Bennett. There are more than 800 ULM alum employed in various areas of medical imaging now, a high percentage who remain in the area, he said.

"We have a huge influence over northeast Louisiana," said Bennett.

Monroe Mayor and ULM alum Jamie Mayo, who issued a proclamation honoring the event, was one of several dignitaries who joined in Friday's celebration of "a new page in ULM history."

Dr. Florencetta Gibson, director of the School of Nursing, talked of the initial excitement two years ago when a brand new simulation lab filled with faux patients and expensive equipment in which to train students had opened, only to see the excitement wash away with the flood waters of Gustav.

The "patients" were taken out on wheelchairs and stretchers, and ULM nursing staff, students and faculty worked hard to save the myriad instruments from damage. The department also agreed to progress with reaccreditation, in spite of the setbacks caused by the Hurricane. Gibson said she expected to hear "any day now" a positive report from the national accrediting agency.

"Nurses always do what needs to be done," said Gibson. "And that has always been the case. We were no different in this situation."

Acknowledging the efforts of many donors, some who chose to remain anonymous, Dr. Gibson thanked all who made the Friday reopening a reality.

"I could never adequately thank all of you who have helped us," she said. "But I want you to know that we were established to serve and that has been what we continue to do."

ULM's nursing graduates consistently exceed state and national average scores on the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX), a test considered the final hurdle in a nursing student's career. Recently, the School of Nursing created an online bachelor of science degree in nursing to encourage those associate's degree registered nurses seeking to return to school.

The Bachelor of Science Nursing program was established in 1960, with the first class of 14 women graduating in 1964. Since that time, 80 to 90 students a year, nearly 3,000 men and women, have earned their degrees in nursing from ULM. Today it is the largest department in the College of Health Sciences and one of the largest in the university.

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