As a pastoral assistant at St. Joseph Catholic Church, Abe Weaver has spent hours in Augusta hospitals visiting the sick.
"I got to see what went on (in the hospitals)," he said. "I got to work with the people who needed help. I got to interact with a lot of nurses."
Then he decided to become one.
Mr. Weaver, 25, is among 16 students this fall in the first class of a new degree program called clinical nurse leader at the Medical College of Georgia School of Nursing. It is being taught in conjunction with University Hospital and the Medical College of Georgia Hospital and Clinics as an accelerated master's degree program.
It also is part of a national trend to create a new role for nurses and allow more people from other professions to become nurses, which is proving popular nationwide, said Robert Rosseter, a spokesman for the American Association of Colleges of Nursing.
Second-degree programs and accelerated baccalaureate nursing programs "are the fastest-growing type of entry-level program into nursing," he said. "There is such a high demand for students wanting to get in. I know in some areas, acceptance rates are as low as 10 percent because there's such a high demand."
Even without the program being advertised the first year, there were at least 70 inquiries, said Lori Schumacher, the interim chairwoman of physiological and technological nursing at MCG. The program's 16-month duration is a factor, she said.
"When they look at that time frame, to be able to get established in a second career, it makes it exciting for them," Dr. Schumacher said.
Graduates also will be filling an evolving role in hospitals where patients are staying shorter times and there is a greater need for someone to quickly assess and coordinate care over the entire stay, said Marilyn Bowcutt, the vice president for patient care services at University, who already has created some of those positions.
"Before, different nurses were doing different pieces, but in fact what we're really doing is trying to put a very focused review on what needs to happen for care," she said.
"It's looking at the whole system, and it's looking at how the patient is impacted by that system," Dr. Schumacher said.
And it will fill a vital need for Mr. Weaver also - a future he can feel more secure about for his family, which will soon include three young children.
While he loves his job at St. Joseph, "I knew it wasn't going to be a long-term thing," he said.
With a degree in music from Augusta State University, he had to go back and take the required anatomy and science courses to be accepted at MCG. But it feels right to him.
"I was looking for a job where I'd have personal interaction, where I'd get to work with people and that paid well," he said. "It really kind of fits with where I see myself going."
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According to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing, which has been pushing the clinical nurse leader program, there are now 90 programs at nursing schools across the country, in partnership with 191 health care institutions. The Medical College of Georgia has the only accelerated master's degree program for clinical nurse leaders in Georgia. Students can earn the degree in 16 months.