Harris Regional Hospital welcomes first Ascent Partnership graduate

Carrie Saunders

The inaugural beneficiary of an educational award program sponsored by Harris Regional Hospital and Swain Community Hospital is now on the job serving patients at Harris Regional Hospital Urgent Care Center, in the Walmart Plaza in Sylva, after completing the Family Nurse Practitioner Program at Western Carolina University.

Carrie Saunders is the first graduate of the WCU program to receive financial support for her education through The Ascent Partnership, a cooperative initiative between the two hospitals and the university launched in 2105. As a major component of that partnership, the hospitals cover the total educational costs for selected nurse practitioner students who commit to a minimum of three years of employment by the hospitals after graduation.

Saunders began working last month as a nurse practitioner helping to meet the health care needs of patients at the hospital’s urgent care center.

“It’s very exciting to provide tuition support for nurse practitioners completing WCU’s intensive, nationally-respected program. We’re proud of Carrie’s hard work and honored to play a small part in helping expand access to thousands of people in our area,” said Steve Heatherly, CEO of Harris Regional Hospital and Swain Community Hospital. “We are fortunate to have a partner like WCU in this endeavor.”

Originally from Charlotte, Saunders received her nursing degree from the Mercy School of Nursing in Charlotte and a Bachelor of Science degree in nursing from WCU before entering the nurse practitioner program. A 2017 graduate of WCU’s program, Saunders worked as a registered nurse in Charlotte while attending school.

“We are thrilled to see the seeds of The Ascent Partnership beginning to bear fruit,” said Doug Keskula, dean of WCU’s College of Health and Human Sciences. “Thanks to the support of our partners at Harris Regional and Swain Community hospitals, students like Carrie are able to graduate debt-free with a guaranteed job after graduating from the program and begin helping meet the health care needs of this community.”

Rural Western North Carolina faces a shortage of physicians, and family nurse practitioners are qualified, cost-effective primary care providers who can help meet the increasing demand for high-quality health care in the region, Keskula said.

The hospitals have selected the next two candidates to receive Ascent Partnership funds while completing WCU’s nurse practitioner program. Hannah Caplinger and Caroline Rooney are registered nurses who have been employed by Harris Regional Hospital and Swain Community Hospital and their affiliated entities for the last several years. Rooney and Caplinger will complete the program in 2019 and will work in a hospital-employed department or physician practice upon graduation.

A Sylva resident, Caplinger earned her associate’s degree in nursing at Southwestern Community College and her bachelor’s degree in nursing at WCU. A Longwood, Florida, native now living in Sylva, Rooney earned her bachelor’s degree in nursing at WCU.