Nurses helping patients is inherent. But nurses helping new nurses also is vital in a demanding, stressful profession packed with responsibility.

Melissa Stafford and Kim Kiser, experienced nurses in the neurosurgical intensive care unit (NSICU) at Novant Health Presbyterian Medical Center in Charlotte, are part of a growing movement to nurture and empower nurses launching into the career.

melissa stafford
Melissa Stafford

"Being a nurse is very stressful,” Stafford said. “I think when they've finished nursing school and come into the reality of nursing, it can be very overwhelming."

Within the profession historically, nurses have been known for “eating their young,” slang for the bullying of new nurses who have yet to earn their stripes. Kiser and Stafford are part of the concentrated movement to counter that.

kim kiser
Kim Kiser

"Experienced nurses can really help new nurses by making them feel welcomed and showing them a lot of support," Kiser said.

A 'support net' for new nurses

Through its Nurse Residency program, Novant Health helps new registered nurses successfully shift from the classroom to the medical center floor. The comprehensive, yearlong program has the highest recognition awarded by the American Nurses Credentialing Center.

Anderson Moore RN at PMC NSICU
Anderson Moore

Anderson Moore, a registered nurse who graduated from the program, rotated through a few units before settling into his job in the NSICU.

“As I rotated in more intermediate units, I learned the flow of being a nurse. Then, once I was comfortable in my core nursing skills, I was able to grow in my abilities to handle more critically ill patients,” Moore said. “Having that safe space to learn under veteran nurses was really helpful. It’s like a safety net of support.”

'I never felt alone'

Julia Gilbert RN at PMC NSICU
Julia Gilbert

Julia Gilbert, who works alongside Moore in the NSICU, began at Novant Health as a certified nursing assistant. As she pursued a career as a registered nurse, Gilbert took advantage of another mentorship program for young nurses: the Student Nurse Apprenticeship Program (known as SNAP for short).

Once she graduated as an RN, Gilbert went through the yearlong Nurse Residency Program, which helped her gain experience with different types of patients and hospital settings to find her perfect fit.

“I love the team on this unit and the interaction between the nurses and the advanced practice providers,” Gilbert said.

“And we have a great relationship with management," she added. "It’s very open and honest. I can go in their office and say however I'm feeling. Everyone works together and we make what can be an awfully sad job a little more fun and lighthearted. So, I’ve never felt alone in a career that can be a little terrifying at first."

Opportunities for growth

In addition to its Nurse Residency and SNAP programs, Novant Health offers a Preceptorship Enhancement Program for senior nursing students. PEP is offered year round during the final semester or as indicated by your nursing program.

nursing team members

Current registered nurses can also further their careers through the Nursing Career Pathways program. It's designed for Novant Health team members who want to become an advanced practitioner, or those who'd like to pursue a leadership or educational role within nursing.

The backbone of Novant Health

elizabeth mills
Elizabeth Mills

Elizabeth Mills, 42, is among the more than 5,200 registered nurses in the health care system, more than 20% of Novant Health’s workforce.

Mills said it's important to be patient with new nurses. "You want to be there as a mentor, coach and preceptor," she said. "You try to help them learn time management. To know I had experienced nurses there was great when I was new."

Mills said she tries to give new nurses room to experience and grow. The goal: Be there without smothering.

"They have to go through the critical thinking process," she said. "You want them to be like a bird in a tree and let them spread their wings a little bit. You're guiding them and staying by them, helping them learn their way."

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It 'meant the world'

Stafford said it's important that veteran nurses not just "teach with words." Sharing personal examples from when they were new, including mistakes, often resonates. Looking back at the start of her career as a new nurse, Stafford recalls the day that she made a mistake that affected a patient.

"I went home in tears," she said. "I told myself `You're not ready for this.’"

Stafford reached out to older, experienced nurses. They embraced her dilemma, shared their own early mistakes and advised her to learn from the miscue and move on.

"They didn't just say the words," Stafford said. "I didn't quit. I stuck it out, and not being isolated, or feeling alone or judged meant the world to me."

Blending new and experienced

Kiser, the NSICU nurse manager, said the newer nurses are groomed to think for themselves.

"We grow our new team members by asking them open-ended questions so they can critically think through a situation," said Kiser, 53, who has about 30 years of nursing experience. "We guide and educate. We don’t give them answers."

She said experience mixes well with the positive energy the new nurses provide.

"They are brilliant, tech-savvy and willing," Kiser said. "They are very receptive to changes. What they don’t know, they research on their days off. Some of them will meet with their preceptors outside of work. They are continuous learners."

Both Moore and Gilbert, once preceptees in the nurse residency program, now serve as preceptors – or mentors – for new graduate nurses.

TOP PHOTO: Registered nurses Anderson Moore (left) and Julia Gilbert (right) are pictured at the Neurosurgical Intensive Care Unit at Novant Health Presbyterian Medical Center in Charlotte.