By Karen Angelo
In 1968, the university launched its nursing program with just 33 students.
Since then, the Solomont School of Nursing has graduated thousands of nursing professionals armed with the skills and expertise to make a difference in people’s lives and has earned a national reputation for preparing gerontological nurse practitioners.
To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the program, the school recognized 50 nursing leaders, including many alumni, at a celebration on Oct. 4 at the UMass Lowell Inn & Conference Center. More than 250 alumni, friends, faculty and staff joined together to celebrate and honor nursing leaders who have improved the delivery of care.
“This anniversary is a major milestone – not just for the Solomont School of Nursing, but for our entire university,” Chancellor Jacquie Moloney said at the event. “Over the past 50 years, what began as a small program has grown into a nursing school with a national reputation – one committed to improving educational opportunities for its students and health care for patients.”
With more than 600 students in academic programs, including bachelor’s and master’s degree offerings and Ph.D. in nursing and doctorate in nursing practice programs, the School of Nursing continues to produce solution-oriented professionals who care for patients, conduct research and shape health care policies.
“For this 50-year milestone, many UMass Lowell nurse leaders were nominated by their peers for making a difference,” said Interim Dean Karen Devereaux Melillo. “We recognize 50 of them today for leading change, advancing nursing and supporting the Solomont School of Nursing.”
The honorees included Diane Mahoney ’80, who spent most of her career conducting research and influencing federal policy that has improved the care of older adults.
“I am honored to be given this recognition and humbled to be in the company of such accomplished alumni,” said Mahoney, professor of geriatric research at MGH Institute of Health Professions and graduate of UML’s gerontological nursing program. “The breadth of our positions and notable leadership roles over these 50 years is a credit to the sustained high quality of the UML nursing program and its graduates’ excellent professional preparation.”
The program’s roots reach back to 1968, when then-Lowell State College President Daniel O’Leary hired Gertrude Barker to launch a nursing program. She was one of the few women at the time in the country with a doctorate, which was in health education. Barker and her colleagues inspired a trail of leaders. Some worked as registered nurses early in their careers, discovered there was a better way to care for patients and fought to change the system.
May Futrell, who served as chair of the nursing program for 23 years, ushered in a new generation of high-level nurses. Seven years after the first nursing class began, Futrell secured over $2.2 million in federal funding to establish the nation’s first program that prepares Gerontological Nurse Practitioners at the master’s level.
Mahoney, who graduated from the program, established one of the first licensed nurse-directed centers that offered community-based primary health care by nurse practitioners. Seniors learned about vital signs, medications, caloric intake and fall prevention.
“While preventive care may seem like common sense today, back in the ’70s, it was not understood or encouraged,” she says. “I found that I loved collecting data. We showed that doing free health care screenings, combined with follow-up and care coordination by nurse practitioners, kept more people out of the hospital.”
Practicing preventive care was also a goal of Margaret Fitzgerald ’86. When she first became a registered nurse, she worked for 16 years caring for patients in the critical care unit. Eager to do more in the community to prevent patients from ending up in the hospital, she earned her master’s degree at UMass Lowell and became a nurse practitioner to help people stay healthy.
When she realized the need for staff development, she launched Fitzgerald Health Education Associates Inc. The company has helped thousands of health professionals pass board exams and continue their education.
“I am extremely proud to be recognized as part of this group of leaders,” says Fitzgerald. It is a heartwarming and humbling club that I joined. The influence that the School of Nursing has had on health in the Merrimack Valley and beyond is extensive.”