Turning Sorrow into Solutions – Alums Create Nursing Fellowship Program

Not long after graduating from GFA, siblings Matt Flynn ’09 and Katie Flynn ’05 suffered an unimaginable loss: their mother, Susan D. Flynn, died of ovarian cancer in 2013. It was a devastating blow to the family. Yet, from that time of darkness shone a light that has helped brighten the path for the future of oncology and palliative care.

A year later, the Flynn family created the Susan D. Flynn Oncology Nursing Development Program to “attract, inspire, and develop the next generation of oncology nurses,” according to the program’s mission statement. Nursing students entering their final year are eligible to apply for a summer fellowship at one of the foundation’s partner hospitals. The fellowship provides aspiring oncology nurses with a comprehensive clinical immersion training that nursing school rotations do not offer; they receive real-life training in oncology care before they even begin their careers.

The program, according to Matt Flynn, was the perfect way to honor his mother. “My mom was not a nurse, but in my opinion, she had a lot of characteristics that a nurse has: she was very loving, compassionate and extremely caring,” he said. “This was a great way to honor her, but also do a lot of good for future cancer patients by addressing the need for more and better skilled oncology nurses.”

In its first year, the program funded 13 “Flynn Fellows” at five hospitals. As of 2021, the program supported more than 30 fellowships at 13 hospitals and has already produced 150 oncology nurses! Since its beginnings in 2014, the Flynn Fellowship Program has created hands-on training opportunities for 232 fellows — selected from more than 2,700 applicants nationally.

“There’s a lot of demand from students for something like this because it’s not necessarily exposure that they can get in their nursing programs,” said Matt. “In a four-year nursing program, you get some clinical exposure, but oncology, being perceived as a specialty, is not necessarily an area where they can get hands-on experience. The program comes in to fill that gap.”

It doesn’t just fill that gap, though, Matt explained. The pandemic has wreaked havoc on budgets for many healthcare centers, resulting in a severe shortage of training and staff. The foundation helps these facilities provide specialized training that might not be otherwise funded, and it provides an extra set of hands for a short-staffed facility. Coming full circle, this means that oncology patients have a better chance of receiving a higher level of care.

“The [pandemic-related] labor shortage is affecting many parts of our economy right now, but nowhere more notable or more important than in our healthcare system and for nurses. Our family is proud to be able to be any part of the solution to that big problem,” Matt said.

The program has produced more than 230 Flynn Fellows graduates so far, two-thirds of whom have already taken positions as oncology nurses, and 46 of whom are working in Connecticut-area Hospitals including Greenwich Hospital, Stamford Hospital, Hartford Healthcare, UCONN Health Center, Connecticut Children’s Medical Center, and New York Presbyterian.

In a statement on behalf of the program, Donna Coletti, the former Medical Director of Palliative Care at Greenwich Hospital attested: “This fellowship has pushed the oncology nursing specialty to the forefront of undergraduate training so that students have this as an option much earlier in their careers.”

Now in its ninth year, the program is now pursuing a bolder, bigger vision. A new expansion plan was recently announced this May, with the goal increasing the number of fellowships from 32 to 54 by 2026. It is also expanding the scope of its fellowship opportunities to include palliative care training for future nurses.

Fred Flynn said in a recent statement, “Our fellowship program model has been successful in building an important talent pipeline for leading hospitals and creating new career pathways for nurses. We’re excited to take this important step to create more opportunities for nursing students and help improve the future quality of care for cancer patients.”

As the family pulls together to make positive headway in oncology and palliative nursing care, Matt said they are reminded of where it all began. The fellowship program is their way of saying thank you and giving back.

“This was really born out of the experience that we saw firsthand in terms of the quality of care that my mom received and the compassionate interaction with her nurses,” Matt said. “Oncology nursing is really hard to get into and it takes a very special type of person to want to do this as a career. Their fellowship experience really reverberates throughout the nurses’ careers and benefits all the patients they end up caring for.”

 This article was originally published on GFAcademy.org in Sept 2022.