Patricia Bruckenthal and Carolyn Santora Have Together Enjoyed Long Careers at Stony Brook
Enjoying a 40-year career at one organization is a rarity today. Two people simultaneously accomplishing that feat in the same place is almost unheard of.
For Stony Brook’s Patricia Bruckenthal and Carolyn Santora, that exact experience has enabled them to realize their career dreams — a goal they believe is well within reach for the next generation of nurses.
For Bruckenthal, recently named dean of the School of Nursing, the journey began in 1975 with a job at a local nursing home.
“My mom encouraged me to find a job, and there was a nursing home near where we lived,” she said. “I got hired as a nursing assistant and watched those amazing nurses. That’s what sparked my career.”
After taking some time to travel the country with a friend in a secondhand postal Jeep, she came to Stony Brook as a baccalaureate nursing student.
Forty-eight years later, Bruckenthal’s role as dean reunites her with longtime colleague Carolyn Santora, chief of regulatory affairs and chief nursing officer at Stony Brook University Hospital, who began her own Stony Brook career in 1979. Together they bring a combined 80-plus years of experience and institutional knowledge that literally pre-dates Stony Brook University Hospital. However, their challenge now is quite different — guiding Stony Brook Nursing through what is perhaps the profession’s most transformational period ever.
“Nursing is going to look vastly different moving forward,” said Bruckenthal. “An aging population, onerous insurance requirements, understaffing and more reliance than ever on technology are just a few of the challenges facing not just Stony Brook, but the entire field. We need to highlight the many positives of a profession that has recently been portrayed as difficult, dangerous and thankless.”
“Forging new roads in nursing is a necessity,” said Santora. “How can a healthcare institution like ours collaborate with the School of Nursing to create the workforce of the future? This is a much different environment from when Pat and I graduated.”
A Model to Follow
Bruckenthal joined the hospital’s nursing staff upon her graduation in 1981 and like many new graduates, she was assigned to the night shift in a surgical unit.
“It was a fun place to work because the residents, physicians, nurses and physical therapists were all on a level playing field,” she said. “It was a team. Today we’re looking at a future of interprofessional education and practice. That’s the model we’ve always had here. But this wasn’t always the norm — that was forward-looking at the time.”
Santora, a Long Island native, was working as a nurse at St. Vincent’s Medical Center in Manhattan when she saw an ad in a medical journal in 1979 — an ad that Bruckenthal also saw.
“The last page of the journal was a full-page ad that read, ‘Once in a lifetime, a university hospital opens,’” she said. “I kept seeing that and I thought, ‘when will I ever have an opportunity to help open a hospital near where I grew up?’”
She applied and was hired, coming home to help shape a flagship hospital.
“I worked on creating the policies and getting things ready for the patients,” she said. “We looked at the standards of care we wanted to give and we saw an opportunity to raise the bar. We put a model of nursing in place that put the bedside nurse as the center of patient care delivery. I believe that was as close to pure primary nursing as was achieved anywhere. We had a unique opportunity to create a hospital for a community.”
Bruckenthal would hone her nursing skills in different specialties until she got an opportunity to become a nurse supervisor when a dedicated unit was opened for the neurology and neurosurgery services in the mid-1980s. There she assumed her first leadership role, taking on responsibility for shifts and nursing assignments.
“That’s where I fell in love with the administrative side of nursing,” she said of the role that would refine the leadership and organizational skills that would underpin the rest of her career.
Meeting the Challenges
Having witnessed four decades of challenges for their profession, Bruckenthal and Santora, both of whom also earned master’s degrees at Stony Brook, expressed concern about the current nursing shortage in the health field.
“In the ’90s, the image of nursing dissuaded some people from going into the field,” said Bruckenthal. “Some people considered being a nurse ‘settling.’ Women and nurses were getting more opportunities to advance into other careers and areas of care and away from bedside nursing. And I think we’re facing that again now. It’s great that nurses have that, but that also makes it more challenging to replenish the nurses we need.”
Santora wholeheartedly agreed.
“We have to end the perception of nursing being a difficult, thankless job without advancement opportunities,” she said. “As leaders, we have to find a new way of nursing and creating models of that will support professional nursing practice in the future.”
Both Bruckenthal and Santora characterized the COVID-19 pandemic as an event that highlighted both the immense difficulty and critical importance of the profession.
“If there’s a silver lining to our COVID experience, it’s the many stories that exposed the work that nurses do, how necessary nurses are and how hard they work,” said Bruckenthal.
Santora pointed out that nurses were the people that showed up day-in and day-out.
“We were all worried of getting COVID or bringing it home to our families,” she said. “But nurses were dedicated, determined and here every day. The importance of the profession was never more evident or recognized.”
The Future of Healthcare
As Stony Brook helps define what the healthcare of the future will look like — the School of Nursing’s Online Master’s Program was recently ranked in the top 10 schools nationwide by the U.S. News and World Report’s Best Online Educational Programs in the category Best Online Master’s in Nursing Programs — Bruckenthal said Stony Brook needs to remain open and nimble to the new education that will be required.
“I’m excited to be back to working with Carolyn to connect the School of Nursing and the Division of Nursing in the hospital in a much more robust way that will benefit not only our students, but the nurses in the hospital as well,” said Bruckenthal. “That can only be positive as we focus on recruitment and retention.”
For Santora, her current role is an example of the career opportunities that arose over the years.
“I’ve grown up here professionally. It’s been a remarkable journey, and I’ve had opportunities I never dreamed of,” she said. “When I greet new staff members at orientation, I tell them how long I’ve been here and those fresh young faces usually gasp. But I tell them, 40 years from now, one of you can be standing here.”
In the end, both Bruckenthal and Santora said their story is simply the story of nursing at Stony Brook — a road that enabled two young nurses to create their own unique paths to success.
“That’s the goal behind everything we’re trying to do,” said Bruckenthal. “The possibilities are endless for nurses moving forward. You just need to figure out where you want your career to go because whatever you want, it’s here.”
— Robert Emproto