By Cornelia de Bruin

Triplicate staff writer

As people say thank you to nurses during Nurse's Week, May 6-12, for the sixth straight year a Gallup Poll reports that many people feel strongly that nurses are the most ethical of the nation's workers.

andquot;We encounter nurses at the weakest parts of our lives. Nurses are there when you enter and when you leave the world,andquot; said Sutter Coast Hospital's director of Patient Relations Carole Peet.

More than five of six Americans - 84 percent - say standards for nurses are andquot;high,andquot; or andquot;very high.andquot;

andquot;Nurses care. They have a lot of compassion and passion,andquot; said the hospital's director of Education and Obstetrics, Janet Wardlaw. andquot;You feel like nurses know your secrets.andquot;

But as the profession receives confident kudos, the nation is affected by a nursing shortage that has, so far, lasted at least seven years and shows little sign of improving before it worsens.

The January/February 2007 issue of Health Affairs quoted David I. Auerbach and his colleagues as estimating that the U.S. shortage of registered nurses will increase to 340,000 by 2020 - about three times what it is now.

It's a frightening prospect nationally, but the shortage has not had as severe an effect here as in many parts of the country.

Peet and Wardlaw say Sutter Coast's Registered Nurse vacancy rate is at 7 percent now.

Better yet, they're quick to point out that among rural hospitals, one in five has an RN vacancy rate more than double Sutter Coast's - 15 percent.

Nationally, the average vacancy rate is 8.5 percent

Attribute the nurse vacancy rate to an aging nurse population: about 46.8-years-old nationally and 46 years among Sutter Coast's RNs.

More than half of nurses surveyed nationally expressed a wish to retire between 2011 and 2020. Three-quarters of those interviewed for a March/April 2005 issue of andquot;Nursing Economic$andquot; believe that the shortage is andquot;a major problemandquot; affecting the quality of their work life, patient care and time spent with patients.

Ninety-eight percent said the shortage would cause stress on nurses.

Ninety-three percent felt the shortage would lower patient care and prod them to leave the profession.

They are chilling statistics to read in light of the advancing age of the Baby Boomer generation - the largest generation in this nation's history.

Perhaps it's even more chilling in the light of a large number of younger women, and men, who want to become nurses but remain on the back list for available training programs.

andquot;It's very expensive to teach them, so it's limited to 10 nursing students per class,andquot; Peet said.

She added that the College of the Redwoods-Crescent City offers a licensed vocational nurse program.

Students who want to attain a higher level of training must go to Eureka for their Registered Nurse classes, she said.

The biggest challenge is meeting student nurses' required clinical needs. College of the Redwoods Director of Nursing Education Melody Pope said that it's being done through an arrangement in which Humboldt students hold their clinicals in Del Norte County and vice-versa.

andquot;Clinical spots for them are a hot commodity,andquot; Pope said.

Peet and Pope worked together to create an LVN to RN Bridge program that enables students to get most of their training in Crescent City. Its students travel to Eureka only twice a week.

Even better, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger recently freed a lump sum of money that College of the Redwoods can use to pay for 10 spots in the program.

Still, however, the waiting list continues for other students. Fifty-five potential nurses locally are on waiting lists to get the training they want.

In spite of the obstacles their profession currently faces, Peet and Wardlaw agree that it offers many positive aspects as a career.

Opportunities abound, with hospital jobs, community health employment, prison jobs, traveling nurse programs and financial stipulations for ongoing training.

Some might argue that nurses' 12-hour shifts are a negative, but Wardlaw and Peet note that the local hospital's nurses work only six of each 14 days.

The profession is a 24/7 business that can't just close its doors, both agreed.

Through it all, however, nurses are there to help and comfort when you're hurt, ill, about to give birth or near death.

Both Wardlaw and Peet agreed that the opportunity to share those parts of people's lives is andquot;a gift.andquot;

andquot;It's not like you would approach a total stranger to ask them to help you give birth,andquot; Wardlaw said. andquot;But when you get to a hospital to have a baby, you're meeting a total stranger,andquot; and you are trusting that person to help during a momentous and sometimes dangerous experience.

Nurses' Week began Sunday, May 6, and ends Saturday, the anniversary of Florence Nightingale's birthday.