CHARLESTON, W.Va. (WOWK) – Across the nation, and most recently in Huntington, the critical shortage of nurses is leading to demonstrations and protests. 

Nurses from Cabell-Huntington Hospital, who in mid-November voted to unionize, say they are overworked, underpaid, and their patients are paying the price.  The demand here and elsewhere has grown because of an aging population, the Affordable Care Act brought more patients into the system, and nurses say they don’t have the applicants to fill vacant positions. 

“We don’t have enough nurses to come behind and to backfill the positions that are being vacated by the nurses that are retiring,” explained Dr. Pamela Alderman, Chair of the Capito Department of Nursing at the University of Charleston, who began her career as an emergency room nurse. 

“In West Virginia, we’re going to need 1,400 nurses annually just to keep pace with the nurses that are retiring,” Alderman said. “So we’re at a deficit already,” she said. 

Alderman said the state’s nursing schools are only graduating about 800-900 new nurses a year. 

“What I see right now, what I experience more so it’s a shortage of the primary bedside nurse,” said Dr. Amy Bruce, the Director of Nursing at the University of Charleston, who was an intensive care unit nurse for 15 years. 

Bruce said, “Nine times out of ten we will see nursing students come to the program because someone in their life has been a nurse or they have been touched by a nurse.” 

Sophomore UC Nursing student Emily Huffman, whose aunt was a nurse, is one of these students. She says, “I just wanted to help people, make an impact in people’s lives.” 

These University of Charleston nursing students are part of the solution, and they’re being told a career in nursing can be rewarding. 

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average salary for a registered nurse is $71,730 a year. They can also get advanced training and the opportunities are limitless. 

Jon Casto is Secretary of the West Virginia Nurses Association, which works with the state legislature and nursing schools to find a solution.  He said, “Every nurse is going to do the best they can in any situation they can to take care of patients the best they can,” Casto said. 

He thinks the recent passage of the West Virginia Invests grant could encourage people to go into nursing. In-state residents who pass a drug test and agree to work in West Virginia for two years can study at one of 27 campuses across the state. 

“They can get a West Virginia Invests grant and get a two-year associates degree in nursing taken care of by that grant, it’s fully funded by that grant,” Casto said. 

So how are West Virginia’s hospitals dealing with the nursing shortage? 

Some will shift nurses around or bring in travel nurses from other states. 

Thomas Health has two hospitals: Thomas Memorial here in South Charleston and St. Francis Hospital in Charleston. Administrators say they’ve experienced the nursing shortage firsthand and have come up with creative ways to recruit and retain nurses. 

“We offer scholarships, we are looking into loan repayment, loan forgiveness,” said Jennie Kahn, the interim Chief Nursing Officer at Thomas Health and a former nurse.  

“We have stepped up our recruiting, we have recruiting bonuses, we have retention bonuses,” Kahn said. 

Kahn said Thomas Memorial also has a junior nurse academy for middle and high school students to get them interested in nursing.     

Aila Accad is the executive director of the Future of Nursing West Virginia action coalition. They host a summit every year to talk about the workforce shortage and possible solutions. 

“We should be concerned about it. It’s a growing issue, it’s a changing issue. The landscape in healthcare is changing,” Accad said. 

Her organization is trying to reach the new generation of nurses as early as middle school. 

“We need more of them to be qualified to go to nursing schools by taking math and science courses,” Accad said. 

Some West Virginia hospitals are also bringing in nurses from other countries to keep up with demand. In addition to bedside nurses, experts say there’s a need for more nursing faculty at colleges.  

Some hospitals are letting their nurses teach courses at colleges and universities while keeping their full-time nursing jobs.