Concern about the shortage of nurses in the U.S. was high even before the Covid-19 pandemic exacerbated the issue, causing many nurses to suffer burnout or retire early. Nine years ago, UConn alumnus Fred Flynn ’75 MBA was ahead of the times and saw a way to help fill the demand.
When Flynn’s wife Susan valiantly battled ovarian cancer and eventually succumbed to the disease in 2013, it was the oncology and palliative care nurses, he says, who showed his family the most compassion. One year later, Flynn created the Susan D. Flynn Oncology Nursing Development Program in memory of his late wife and as an ongoing tribute to her caregivers.
“Nurses make all the difference in the world,” Flynn says. “You spend 12 minutes every three months with your doctor, and you spend 24/7 with your nurses.”
The program’s main initiative is creating paid oncology fellowship opportunities for rising senior nursing students at leading hospitals on the East Coast. Since 2014, the Flynn Fellowship Program has partnered with several Connecticut hospitals and cancer centers, including UConn Health. This past May, Flynn announced that the program will expand from 32 fellowships a year to 54 by 2026, in response to the market demand for this unique program.
“Students get very little academic or clinical exposure to oncology because it is perceived as a specialty,” he says. “Unlike the corporate world or specialty areas like law and accounting, there are very few meaningful, paid, specialty internships that pave the way to job opportunities right after graduation for nurses.”
Since 2016, 27 UConn School of Nursing students have been selected as Flynn Fellows, including six members of the Class of 2023 who completed their fellowships this past summer. Flynn says that is the highest number of students selected from one school in one summer since the start of the program and reflects the high quality of nursing students UConn is producing. Catherine Cantelmo and Tarrese Folk were Flynn Fellows at UConn Health, Charlotte Hamilton at Greenwich Hospital, Quyen Le at Connecticut Children’s, Shika Reji at Hartford Hospital, and Alison Lopez Valdivia at Stamford Hospital.
Of the 21 UConn School of Nursing graduates who have also completed the Flynn Fellowship Program, 14 are currently working in Connecticut hospitals and 12 are oncology nurses.
“We are grateful our students have access to this opportunity through the Susan D. Flynn Oncology Nursing Development Program,” says Dean Deborah Chyun, Ph.D., RN, FAHA, FAAN. “They learn invaluable skills and enter the workforce better prepared to help patients, whether in oncology units or elsewhere.”
The application process for the program is rigorous. Host hospitals competitively select rising college seniors to intern at their respective locations, where they spend eight to 10 weeks in the summer. Acceptance to the program is based on meticulous evaluations of an applicant’s academic credentials, personal experience, and interest in oncology. In the past nine years nearly 3,000 aspiring nurses have applied for the 262 available fellowship positions.
During the fellowship, students are exposed to a variety of hands-on and observational learning experiences, covering topics such as oncology nursing, medical-surgical oncology, oncology clinic processes and routines, palliative/supportive care services, infusion services including chemotherapy and immunotherapy administration, radiation therapy, patient support programs, oncology nurse navigation, and cancer genetics counseling services.
Every Flynn Fellow is also required to complete an evidence-based research project on some aspect of oncology nursing during the program. Each student presents their project at the program graduation ceremony to their hospital’s nursing administration and others, including Flynn.
“The quality of the work is amazing,” he says. “The students get up in front of the chief nursing officer, staff, preceptors, their parents, and me, and they dazzle us.”
The six UConn School of Nursing students who participated in the program this past summer all had similar reasons for applying for the fellowship: They experienced the health care system as a result of familial connections or clinical rotations on oncology floors, inspiring them to help others as a result.
“My dad was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2017 and was initially treated at Greenwich Hospital,” says Hamilton, who had a full-circle moment when she was selected as a Flynn Fellow at Greenwich Hospital. “As a junior in high school who was already interested in a career in health care, witnessing the phenomenal care his nurses provided to both him and my family was truly inspiring. I am so grateful to them and that my dad remains in remission and healthy to this day.”
“I have a family member who is a survivor of cancer, which originally piqued my interest in the subject,” says Cantelmo, who was one of the two UConn students at UConn Health this summer. “I was also inspired by the nurses that I saw during my junior year clinical experiences and their amazing capacity to care for oncology patients in such critical conditions.”
The origin story of the Flynn Fellowships offered through UConn Health actually has ties to the UConn basketball program, of which Flynn is a fan. He crossed paths with former men’s head coach Jim Calhoun in 2015 in Indianapolis during the Final Four. Knowing Calhoun’s own experience with cancer, Flynn says he gave Calhoun his elevator pitch about the Flynn Fellowship Program and his card. The two met up a few weeks later and Calhoun graciously connected Flynn with the administration at UConn Health.
“We are thrilled to be completing our seventh year as a host hospital for the Susan D. Flynn Oncology Nursing Fellowship here at UConn Health,” says clinical nurse specialist Devon Bandouveres, MSN, RN, OCN. “Our fellows get to spend time on our inpatient oncology unit and in the Neag Comprehensive Cancer Center. The inspiring nature of this fellowship has launched many new oncology nurses into the workforce which is incredibly valuable to host organizations, especially during these unprecedented times in health care.”
As part of the expansion Flynn announced in May, his program will soon begin offering new fellowships for students who are interested in specializing in palliative care. These new fellowships are currently being piloted at HopeHealth in Rhode Island and Flynn says they will also be available at Calvary Hospital in New York next summer.
“Students in the oncology fellowship program read the leading books on palliative care, complete a six-hour endof- life communications course, and spend at least a week in palliative care during their fellowship,” he says. “Now I am going to be able to offer aspiring nurses who want to go right into palliative care a streamlined career pathway to do so.”
By the time they complete their Flynn Fellowship, students have joined a network of nurses who they can turn to for the rest of their careers. Not only are fellows mentored by hospital staff and previous Flynn Fellows during the summer, but Flynn himself serves as their career advocate long beyond the internship. He actively writes references for his former fellows and helps connect them with oncology nursing positions across the country.
“They are not only good students, they are also very caring and compassionate,” Flynn says. “It is satisfying to work with aspiring nurses who are passionate about something so purposeful, and they are so grateful to have someone help them pursue their dream jobs. They are like my extended family, and we stay in touch.”
Flynn started his program to give back to those who helped his wife and family during the end of her life. His Flynn Fellows, in turn, give back to communities all over the country when they begin their careers, whether in oncology nursing or another specialty. Folk has one year left of her undergraduate nursing program and already has big plans for her future, thanks to the skills she has learned at UConn and through her Flynn Fellowship.
“I hope to educate communities who lack cancer knowledge and measures that can potentially decrease the chance of being diagnosed with the disease,” Folk says. “Statistically, African Americans have the highest percentage of being diagnosed with and dying of cancer, so as an African American female it has become my mission to provide care to minorities.”