HAZARD, KY.–In the heart of eastern Kentucky, the chance for new opportunity and hope came at the hand of one who calls this place home. The Galen College of Nursing recently opened a new campus with the Appalachian Regional Healthcare (ARH) system in Hazard, KY, to respond to a staggering shortfall of 2,200 nursing personnel throughout the Appalachian region.
“The need for nurses in the growing healthcare system is seen throughout the country, especially in eastern Kentucky,” said Dr. Audria Denker, MSN, DNP, RN. “Hospitals and healthcare facilities have shared their concerns with us and this new campus provides much needed assistance and a tremendous opportunity for growth.”
Denker is an eastern Kentucky native from Pike County who always dreamed of something big for herself and her children. Pregnant as a high school junior, she dropped out of school to raise her son, but she determined never to give up on the education and life she hoped for her family. With her sister’s persistence, Denker finished her GED and received a scholarship to Pikeville College where she obtained her nursing degree. That is where her journey in education started, but it would not finish there.
Denker began her career working at Kosair Children’s hospital in Louisville 20 years ago. She quickly discovered that nursing required more than iron will and determination; it required compassion. She learned that lesson when treating children diagnosed with cancer—children who weren’t just counting days, but moments. She spent more than a dozen years as a clinical manager in pediatric oncology at Kosair when an unexpected opportunity came knocking.
“I didn’t realize it at the time, but my life was about to change, so that I could change the lives of others just like me,” said Denker. “In 2005, I left a job that I knew and loved for many years for a new job in education with the Galen College in Louisville. I didn’t know how well I would do as an educator, but I immediately fell in love with my students whose stories were just like mine. It was then that I found my true calling.”
Denker would spend more than 10 years with Galen College as a director of Initiatives and as a vice president of Student Affairs and Human Resources. Through the years, she helped to build Galen’s education programs that would span several states and reach thousands of students, but her journey in education would bring her back to a place much closer to home.
In 2015, Denker, now senior vice president of Strategic Relationships at Galen, started making official visits back to her native eastern Kentucky. She met with several colleagues at Pikeville Medical Center, Highland Regional Medical Center, and Appalachian Regional Healthcare (ARH) in Hazard, KY. When she finally met with ARH Chief Nursing Officer (CNO) Ellen Wright, she discovered a growing crisis in eastern Kentucky.
“Ellen’s compassion for her patients, her staff, and the local community overwhelmed me,” Denker recalled. “She then shared with me a glaring problem for the region with a shortfall of nurses—the workforce wasn’t large enough to meet or sustain the growing demands. Even worse, talented students were leaving eastern Kentucky for other opportunities. That’s when I decided to go back to Galen CEO Mark Vogt with a new idea for opening a campus for ARH in eastern Kentucky.”
“When Dr. Denker presented her idea, I saw the perfect opportunity to live our mission—to expand access to nursing education and to truly affect the lives of those we touch,” said Vogt, CEO of Galen College of Nursing. “How could we not do it? We exist to educate students to care for what will be thousands of people in their professional careers. I couldn’t be more honored to be a part of the Hazard community.”
Through a series of meetings with the heads of Galen College and ARH, a real partnership began to form as they identified the needs in the surrounding area.
“It’s amazing what can come from a conversation when you get the right people together—especially when nursing education is a frequent topic,” said ARH CEO Joe Grossman. “I wanted to do anything I could to make it happen.”
In order for an idea to become reality, they would need a little more help. Denker’s sister, who had previously worked with Perry County Judge/Executive Scott Alexander, introduced the two. Within an hour of their first-ever phone conversation, Dr. Denker and Judge Alexander were meeting face-to-face in a Louisville restaurant, sketching on the back of a napkin their vision of a Galen campus in Hazard.
“I knew the moment that I heard what Dr. Denker was imagining for Hazard, the medical community, and the nursing profession that there was no question we needed to get to work right away,” said Alexander. “There is a massive opportunity for education, growth, and training right here in eastern Kentucky.”
Judge Alexander asked Denker to meet again with one more person—this time in Frankfort.
“When Judge Alexander asked me if I could meet him in Frankfort, I dropped everything to meet him at the Department for Local Government (DLG),” said Denker. “Commissioner Sandra Dunahoo and the DLG team were the first outside group to listen to our ideas and they were very encouraging and receptive. Not long after our initial meeting with DLG, we worked with Judge Alexander to apply for an Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) grant to help with much-needed classroom equipment.”
“Dr. Denker demonstrated she was not only an accomplished professional as both nurse and educator, but she matched that knowledge and professionalism with true passion to transform her community,” said Commissioner Dunahoo at DLG. “It’s without question that she understood the crisis facing eastern Kentucky and she’s determined to be part of the solution.”
Not long after, the ARC awarded Perry County a grant for $250K toward the purchase of classroom equipment and renovations of the old ARH system hospital for classroom space.
“If you could have seen the condition of the old building before the renovations, you would be absolutely amazed by what you see today,” said Denker. “We have repurposed what was essentially an empty old building and retooled it to provide a state-of-the-art, quality nursing education in Hazard.”
Galen’s initial project includes one 40-seat classroom, one clinical learning lab, a student lounge, and offices. Denker dreams of growing this budding 4,000 square foot campus into four classroom spaces that not only offer an Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN), but will also assist nurses seeking to pursue their BSN online while they continue to live and work in eastern Kentucky. The inaugural nursing class began on March 30.
“There’s real opportunity for economic growth and development for the nursing profession in eastern Kentucky. Hazard alone has needs for up to 100 full-time nurses right now,” said Denker. “I believe what we’re able to accomplish in Hazard in this first phase is a real step in the right direction.”