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The Flynn Fellowship: A Path Toward Excellence in Oncology Nursing

How one man’s loving tribute to his wife has grown into a “win-win-win” for aspiring oncology nurses, the hospitals who invest in them, and the patients who receive their expert care.

By Christine Lejeune

Not so long ago, it would have been impossible for Fred Flynn to contemplate what a contribution he would make to the world of nursing—how he’d impact hundreds of nurses and countless more patients. After all, his background was in finance, not medicine. But when, in 2013, his beloved wife, Susan, died of ovarian cancer after a three-year-long battle with the disease, Flynn found himself driven by a new purpose: He wanted to find a way to honor the memory of his wife—it had to be something “meaningful, personal, and respectful.” On top of that? He wanted to show his gratitude and support for the medical professionals who’d given such expert, compassionate care to Susan, particularly in the final months of her life.

“My goal is to attract
the best and brightest nurses to pursue oncology, then offer great mentoring and show them their career potential by surrounding them with the best practitioners.”

—Fred Flynn

And so he set to work. At first, he focused specifically on the small, committed palliative care
team from Connecticut’s Greenwich Hospital who had touched both his life and Susan’s so deeply, developing and leading a fund- raising program that would buoy and grow the palliative care department. It was a success. (In just 87 days, he raised more than $140,000.) But that wasn’t the end of Flynn’s efforts. His mission expanded rather suddenly one night at home, when he happened to read about a program at Massachusetts General Hospital. The program—the Carol Ghiloni Oncology Nursing Fellowship—aimed to educate and nurture student nurses going into the world of oncology care.

“It was like a lightning bolt from the sky,” he says. “I thought, My God, this is exactly what I’d like to do.”

He moved fast. After securing Ghiloni’s enthusiastic blessing to use her program as model, Flynn launched his Susan D. Flynn Oncology Nursing Development Program in 2014, sponsoring 13 nursing students in five hospitals. From there it took off. Today, the Flynn Fellowship, as it’s popular- ly known, is offered through 19 nursing schools—including Penn Nursing, which boasts 28 Flynn Fellows since 2015, 26 of whom are currently in the workforce, and 23 of them are working as oncology nurses.

“The Flynn Fellowships offers Penn Nursing students an exceptional learning experience in evidence-based practice and the foundational science for oncology nursing practice that helps launch their careers as oncology nurses,” says Associate Dean for Practice, Rosemary C. Polomano PhD RN FAAN.

The fellowship, an eight-to-ten week summer program, offers rising seniors firsthand experience in the leading on- cology units, with Penn Nursing stu- dents landing at either the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia or the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. Fellows not only spend time in “home units,” working one-on-one with nurse preceptors in inpatient oncology, but also get meaningful exposure to other aspects of cancer care, from the palliative care training that was to important Flynn from the start to radiation therapy to clinical research, and much more. Throughout the summer, each Fellow also works on an evidence-based re- search project, which they present at the close of the fellowship.

Since 2015, HUP has been an espe- cially enthusiastic partner, Flynn says. In his initial meeting with then-Chief Nurse Executive Regina Cunningham PhD RN NEA-BC FAAN GR’03, he found an ally even before he’d finished his pitch: Cunningham (today the hos- pital’s CEO) “has always been a huge advocate of this program,” Flynn says. “And it’s astounding what’s happened at HUP since we started. We’ve seen an 88 percent yield of oncology nurses through the fellowship there.”

It’s not just the impressive numbers that set the program apart, says Jordan Mellinger MSN RN BMTCN—it’s the scope and focus of the fellowship experience itself. Mellinger, a Nurse Manager of Oncology at HUP, is the facilitator for the program and a key figure in supporting the fellowship, along- side Chief Nurse Executive Colleen Mattioni DNP RN CNOR and Clinical Director of Oncology Nursing Kristen Maloney PhD RN AOCNS. “For Fellows, there’s just not any other program like this, offering insight across the care continuum though oncology,” she says. “It’s literally an experience I’ve never even had, in my 12 years as a nurse leader.”

The Fellows themselves would echo the sentiment. “The shadow days in all the different specialties really helped me as an oncology nurse, thinking about the big picture of on- cology care,” says Paige Gugerty RN, a Flynn Fellow in 2018 who went on to work in HUP’s oncology department after her fellowship. In fact, Gugerty’s experience points to another boon of the program—the pipeline of talent streaming into the partner hospitals via the Fellows. Not only does the pro- gram support the promising nurses who are selected for the fellowship (and make no mistake— it’s a highly competitive, rigorous application process), but the hospitals themselves benefit, too, considering their access to some of the “best and brightest” new nurses, as Flynn puts it, as well as the leadership opportunities for mid-career nurses who can gain preceptor experience working with the Fellows. “It’s like a win-win-win,” Flynn says.

It’s true, says Lauren Ferguson RN BSN CPHON, the Flynn Fellowship liaison at CHOP, which currently em- ploys seven former Fellows. (“And then,” Ferguson adds, “the five from last year are all hired and starting this summer, which makes 12!”) Both Ferguson and her colleague Kimberly A. DiGerolamo DNP RN PCNS-BC CPHON CPN EBP-C FCN, who over- sees the fellows’ EBP projects, also point to some of the less obvious perks of working with the Flynn Fellows each summer—the extra TLC the student nurses can offer patients, for one thing.

There’s also the EBP presenta- tions, DiGerolamo says: “They’re ask- ing some great questions.” More than once, similar questions have come up in practice, she says, and she’s been able to point practitioners toward some of the background information Flynn Fellows have pulled.

Nobody appreciates all of this im- pact more than Fred Flynn, who is still expanding his vision to support oncol- ogy nurses and nursing. (He recently partnered with Jonas Philanthropies to offer scholarships for DNP candidates, for example, and he’s also piloting a plan for a palliative care version of the fellowship.) Through all of the growth and grad- uation ceremonies he’s celebrated for his Fellows, he’s never lost sight of his original motivation. On the contrary, Flynn has been deeply pleased to see new donors and fellowship sponsors, people who have been moved—just as he was—by the extraordinary care and compassion they’ve received from their oncology nurses, people choosing to invest in the care and care-givers who will make a difference for other patients and families through the Susan D. Flynn Oncology Nursing Fellowship Program.

The program—this project he undertook nine years ago, almost as “a sort of therapy”—has become so much more to him and to many others over the years. The progress has been energizing and beautiful to see, Flynn says. “My memorial tribute to my wife is now my calling. And I just love it.”