Students who have received financial support through Conway Scholarships are realizing their dreams of becoming nurses. Along the way, they have been gifted with the friendship of their benefactors — Bill and Joanne Conway.
By Catherine Lee
Graceann Kraemer is about midway through a 12-hour shift on the neuroscience/neurosurgery unit at Children’s National Health System in Northwest D.C. Wearing scrubs and sturdy black patent leather clogs, she moves from one patient room to the next, checking vital signs and administering medications. When she arrives at the room of a 15-month-old baby girl, Kraemer leans over the bed, speaking softly as she changes her diaper and examines her carefully. A blinking bedside monitor records the child’s heart rate and blood pressure.
The baby is still, except when seizures cause her frail arms and legs to contract. Born premature, the child has hydrocephalus — water on the brain. Admitted to Children’s National because the shunt that drains fluid from her brain has failed, she’s been a patient for about two months. She’s a twin whose family isn’t able to visit her regularly. When Kraemer’s shift is quiet, she carries the baby to the nurses’ station and plays with her.
Kraemer’s supervisor, Lisa Williams-Greeley, described Kraemer’s skill set and compassion for patients and families as “remarkable.” Williams-Greeley, a seasoned nurse and nurse educator who has worked at Children’s National for 18 years, has known Kraemer since she interned on the unit as a student at Catholic University’s School of Nursing, recently named the Conway School of Nursing. At the time, Kraemer was a Conway Scholar — the recipient of a full, four-year scholarship to study nursing at the University.
“Graceann has really set the pace for Conway Scholars at Children’s,” said Williams-Greeley. Other Conway Scholars interested in working at the hospital have “pretty big shoes to fill,” she added.
"It’s hard to come up with the words to describe the impact that this gift has had on my life. I’m so grateful." — Graceann Kraemer
Kraemer, a 2017 graduate from Madison, Conn., said that studying at the nursing school provided her with “the knowledge base and values that led to the job of my dreams.” Her scholarship, she added, enabled her “to put down roots in D.C. It’s hard to come up with the words to describe the impact that this gift has had on my life. I’m so grateful.”
Kraemer’s path to her dream job started with a phone call from the nursing school during her senior year in high school. She had been accepted to Catholic University, but as the oldest of three siblings, she knew that studying there probably wasn’t going to be possible. However, when she answered the phone, she was offered a scholarship that would cover her tuition, room and board, fees, and books. She remembers turning to her sister in disbelief and telling her that she could probably attend Catholic University after all.
On her first day at the University she met fellow first-year and Conway Scholar Sadie Rendon. “Attached at the hip” from the moment they met in Gowan Hall, they became best friends who learned early that the scholarship program was “an amazing gift,” said Rendon.
At the end of her junior year, Kraemer learned of a summer internship as a childcare technician at Children’s National. Paired with a nurse, she would work three 12-hour shifts a week on the neuroscience/neurosurgery unit (where she works now), taking vital signs and bathing and feeding patients.
She wouldn’t have been able to accept the internship without the help of Bill and Joanne Conway, whose Bedford Falls Foundation funds the scholarships. The Conways paid for housing and a stipend for Kraemer and other scholars so they could stay in the D.C. area that summer and work at local hospitals. Kraemer described the experience as “life changing.”
In her senior year she qualified for a coveted practicum assignment on the same unit at Children’s National, enabling her to work one-on-one with a nursing instructor. A practicum offers more hands-on experience than a typical clinical rotation, in which six students are supervised by one instructor.
“Even when Graceann was a Conway Scholar, the marriage was great,” said Williams-Greeley. “Without question we knew that we would bring her back on board as a staff nurse.”
When Williams-Greeley heard Kraemer’s best friend was thinking about applying for a job on the unit, she said she was immediately interested in interviewing her. Rendon was hired and now works on the unit as well. Scholastica Ibezimako and Morgan Tinneny — two Conway Scholars who also graduated in 2017 — work on the surgical care unit at Children’s National, just across the hall from neuroscience/neurosurgery.
Now, the Conway graduates do advanced patient assessments, administer complex medications and treatments, and collaborate with families and other health-care providers to craft individual care plans. Kraemer is the leader of a project that’s looking at ways to manage epileptic patients who have seizures when they’re taken from neuroscience/neurosurgery to another part of the hospital.
During a recent shift Kraemer and Rendon took a short break in the unit conference room. Cups of coffee and a plate of donuts sat on the table.
They recalled their classes at the nursing school, where they learned about the importance of managing their time and prioritizing tasks — lessons they’ve relied on since starting their nursing careers. Their professors also emphasized “cooperation in the workplace, relying on your colleagues, and using the chain of command,” especially when there’s a “code blue” and nurses are rushing to respond to a patient emergency, said Kraemer.
As scholarship recipients, Kraemer and Rendon qualified for NCLEX-RN preparation and review courses that were funded by the Conways. Nursing graduates must pass the rigorous National Council Licensure Examination to be certified as registered nurses. The first cohort of Conway Scholars, who started in the fall of 2013 and graduated in May 2017, all passed the NCLEX-RN the first time they took the exam.
The second cohort, scheduled to graduate in 2020, “continues to excel at everything they do” and maintains a mean grade point average of 3.71, according to the September 2018 semiannual report prepared by the nursing school for the Conways. Nursing Dean Patricia McMullen says the University now offers both full and partial Conway scholarships to students.
McMullen described the scholarships as “transformational. Among our Conway Scholars, we have virtually 100 percent employment after graduation and excellent outcomes in the workplace.”
When the Conways created the scholarship program, their goals were to provide an education for aspiring nurses who would fill jobs mainly in the D.C. area, and to help ease the country’s nursing shortage. According to health-care experts, the U.S. will need an additional one million nurses by 2025. Bill said he and his wife plan to provide funding to educate 10,000 nurses. “I think we’re at about 1,700 now,” he added.
The Conways had already given a total of $20 million to the University’s nursing school for scholarships as of June, when they gave an additional $20 million — the largest single gift in the history of Catholic University. This gift will partially fund a new nursing and sciences building, to be erected between Father O’Connell Hall and Maloney Hall on Michigan Avenue. The renaming of the nursing school recognizes their $40 million in total support.
They also fund Conway Scholarships for nursing students at several other D.C. area colleges and universities. Conway Scholars who have graduated from Catholic University are employed at D.C. area medical facilities that include Children’s National, MedStar Georgetown University Hospital, Holy Cross Hospital, MedStar Washington Hospital Center, and INOVA Fairfax Hospital, as well as many other medical centers outside the D.C. area.
Bill and Joanne Conway do more than just give money; Bill visits the nursing school regularly and gets to know the scholarship recipients. At the University’s 2017 Commencement, he and his wife personally presented all 19 of the Conway Scholars their diplomas.
Every Christmas, the nursing school sends a video or photo book about the students to Bill and Joanne as a way to thank them for their generosity. The students often send notes to them, sharing news about their courses and internships. Rendon, whose family owns a bed-and-breakfast in a small town on Cape Cod, Mass., said one year at Christmas, she sent the Conways a box of cranberry chocolates; another year she sent a jar of cranberry jelly.
Bill, who was born in Lowell, Mass., is a cofounder and co-executive chairman of The Carlyle Group, a global alternative asset management firm based in Washington, D.C. His foundation is named after the town of Bedford Falls in the 1946 film classic It’s a Wonderful Life. The movie stars James Stewart as George Bailey, who doesn’t realize how many lives he’s touched until an angel shows him what the town would be like if he had never been born.
Bill, who said he’s “blessed with a strong Catholic faith and a great trust in God,” found himself wondering how he could use his good fortune to help others.
After the 2008 economic crisis, Bill said he and his wife started looking for ways to help generate jobs for more Americans. Joanne “was very insistent” that they help aspiring nurses with scholarships, her husband said. “She had received a scholarship, which made her appreciate the value of that kind of gift.” In addition, Bill was impressed by the nursing care his parents had received in the last year of their lives; within six months, they both died at the age of 85 in 2011.
"If you need a nurse, you hope for one from Catholic."— Bill Conway
Given the compassion and competence of Catholic University nursing graduates, Bill said, “If you need a nurse, you hope for one from Catholic. Not that other nurses don’t have it, but Catholic University nurses focus on treating the patients, not just the disease.” Noting the visits that University nursing students make to Miriam’s Kitchen in Northwest D.C., where they provide foot care to people who are homeless, he said, “To me, that’s just a stunning ability to give of yourself.”
During a recent visit to the nursing school, Bill was greeted by McMullen, who welcomed him with a gift — a framed portrait of himself done by a Conway Scholar who is starting his sophomore year this fall. Ibezimako and fellow 2017 Conway Scholar graduate Sabine Ogé stopped by to see their benefactor.
Seated at a table in Gowan Hall’s Integrated Learning Laboratory, they talked about their jobs and what they’ve learned since graduating from the nursing school.
Ogé, who works in the surgical/neuro intensive care unit at Holy Cross Hospital in Silver Spring, Md., said that when she was a student she didn’t think she could handle the pressure of working in the ICU. Her clinical experiences helped to build her confidence. Now she’s working with the nursing team on her unit on a research project about pressure wounds.
“I remember what you were like when you started — scared and uncertain,” said Bill. “Look how far you’ve come,” he added, beaming with pride.
When Ibezimako told Bill that she’s returning to Catholic University in the fall as a part-time student in the Dual Acute and Primary Care Pediatric Nurse Practitioner Program, McMullen joked that “one of these young women is going to be sitting in my chair soon.”
During National Nurses Week in May, Ibezimako received an award for exemplary professional practice for having gone out of her way to track down medication for a one-month-old baby who had developed a post-op infection. The baby needed an antibiotic, but the parents couldn’t find a pharmacy where they lived in Virginia that had it. Without it, the baby would have to be readmitted to Children’s National. The desperate parents got in touch with Ibezimako. She called several pharmacies and found one in Maryland that delivered the antibiotic to Children’s National, where the parents picked it up.
The demands of her job sometimes keep her at the hospital beyond the end of her 12-hour shift, said Ibezimako. Some days she stays a couple of extra hours to finish writing up notes about her patients, but she still has to get up early the next morning to be at the hospital by 7 a.m. “You’re worn out, but when you see the smile on the face of a patient who you thought was going downhill, you remember why you’re a nurse.”
As their visit was winding down, Ibezimako and Ogé asked Bill how he was doing. They were relieved to hear that the back surgery he had last year was successful, and delighted by the news that he’s going to be a grandfather.
“I’m still the luckiest guy on the planet,” Bill said, “I sometimes wonder why God gave me all this money. Well, you’re the answer. We were happy to provide your scholarships then and now we’re even happier.”
This article appeared in the summer 2019 issue of CatholicU magazine. The summer issue includes a photo essay of nursing students providing care to residents in Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria, a feature article on the University's Intelligence Studies Program, and a discussion among five faculty members about happiness.