By Matt Skoufalos

When Laura Cornelis decided to pursue a career in health care, her life was at a crossroads. Newly divorced with two young children, she balanced parenting, work and her education. Very few of those pulls on her attention relented; all-nighters were common, and if her children took sick and there was no one else to watch them, she had to bring them to class. Yet, Cornelis was determined to stick it out.

“It was rough, but nobody in my family ever went to college, and my parents didn’t graduate from high school,” she said. “It was a huge accomplishment for me.”

Cornelis began her schooling in the surgical technician certificate program at Camden County College in New Jersey, but Jennifer Hoheisel, a philosophy professor in her bioethics course, encouraged her to switch to a nursing track.

“She approached me and asked why I was in the [certificate] program,” Cornelis said. “I didn’t understand that there were options for me. I was just looking at what would be quick and what would be affordable.”

Hoheisel encouraged Cornelis to “just apply, and worry about how you’ll pay for it later.” Cornelis followed that advice, and wound up getting offers from five different schools. Drexel University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania offered her a dean’s scholarship for every year she maintained a 3.5 GPA, and she kept up her average.

A year into the program, however, she suffered a head injury, and its lingering aftereffects forced her to quit school and change her major to health administration.

She did graduate, and then once her symptoms were controlled, returned to complete her nursing degree – all while working. Drexel places its students in a co-op work-study program, which gives them classroom and vocational experience in equal measure throughout the calendar year, but Cornelis was well familiar with managing the variety of demands on her time. Still, that didn’t make it any easier; what got her through was a determination to complete her course of study, and a genuine love of the course material.

“It sounds silly, but two things that I like a lot are people and problems, and I feel like nursing is the best combination of both of those things,” Cornelis said. “You get to talk to people all day and be with them and help them, a lot of times at the worst time of their life, and you’re helping them try to figure out their problems. It’s part social work, part detective.”

After graduating, Cornelis took a job at Jefferson University Hospital, also in Philadelphia, working with head and neck cancer patients. It was the setting in which she honed her patient education skills.

“You’re dealing with people who are having life-altering, disfiguring surgeries,” Cornelis said. “Sometimes they would lose their ability to speak from mouth and throat cancer; they would sometimes lose their tongue, lose their larynx, and it would be life-changing.”

After six years, Cornelis decided to return to school to pursue a master’s degree, which she earned through distance learning at Simmons College in Boston, Massachusetts. From there, she spent a year-and-a-half working in primary care in southern New Jersey, an environment Cornelis described as “the med-surg of being a nurse practitioner.”

“I loved it,” she said. “Working in primary care, you see everything; you do it all. The part I didn’t love about it was the pace. You’re seeing 25 to 30 patients a day, and it’s really hard to spend time with people.”

When the opportunity arose to work in a more hands-on setting, Cornelis and her family relocated to Naples, Florida, where she took on a visiting nursing role with PopHealthCare in the Fort Myers area. It represents a big change from her prior experiences: she’s driving more, taking longer appointments with patients, and observing them in their home environments, which adds another dimension to her diagnostic efforts. The service is delivered in partnership with health insurer Florida Blue.

“I tell my patients even if you think you don’t need it, this is the closest thing you’re going to get to concierge medicine without being rich,” Cornelis said. “It’s almost like the old days when doctors did house calls. I get to really sit down and spend time with people, and you see them in their element; things that you would never really see if you saw them in the office. I like that aspect of it.”

All this work is done in service of limiting hospitalizations for patients who have had recent hospital stays, or who face complicated medical conditions, via personalized, intervening, primary care. Cornelis said the practice is not unlike the early days of frontier medicine, when nurses on horseback would travel to rural and distributed areas to provide in-home care for patients farther removed from centralized treatment options.

“I think that’s where nurses with advanced degrees are really going to come in handy,” Cornelis said. “There are so many areas just lacking health services, [and] rural health care is huge right now. I think that’s definitely going to be a huge area of need.”

Home health care is an aspect of practice in which Cornelis believes her training as a nurse helps expand the quality of service she can provide to her patients. Its emphasis on communication and bedside manner has helped her build a meaningful rapport with those in her care.

“I think nurses with advanced degrees bring a totally different element to health care,” Cornelis said. “I’ve had many patients say, ‘You really took the time to explain that to me,’ or, ‘No one ever told me that.’ Nurses have a lot to offer, especially in primary care, where the demand is really high, and it’s going to continue to grow.”

Cornelis doesn’t believe she’s finished with her own professional growth, either; she’s already looking into nursing doctorate programs, and can easily foresee a teaching role in her future.

“I didn’t like school as a kid, but I like school now,” she said. “Where I grew up, I didn’t know anybody that went to college as a kid. Neither one of my parents went to college, but I always knew it was something I wanted to do. Now, I’ve got this bug in my ear to start teaching.”

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