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How Nurse Sarah Aronack Saved a Rural Hospital From Closure

How Her Master’s Degree Program Helped This Nurse Save a Rural Alabama Hospital

We've partnered with Western Governors University to highlight exactly how higher education can change lives — and not just the life of the student.

Sarah Aronack was never one of those kids who automatically knew what they wanted to be when they grew up.” My oldest son is 8 years old, and he knows he wants to be a doctor,” she said. “I wish I would have been that kid.”

Though Sarah eventually became a nurse, her career path wasn’t a straight shot. She actually joined the military first, eventually serving for 10 years. Along the way, she became a licensed practical nurse, then a registered nurse, earned her bachelor’s degree in nursing, and had two children.

As if that wasn’t enough, Sarah decided to go back to school for her master’s degree in nursing. The only problem? Not only was she working full time as a night-shift nurse with a newborn baby at home, but Sarah was also living in rural Alabama — hours away from the nearest university.


That’s when Sarah discovered Western Governors University. This online university is competency-based, so you can work at your own pace and complete a course as soon as you’ve mastered the material. “The quicker I could get the classes done, the faster I was finished,” Sarah said. “The fact that I could go as fast as possible and pay by the term made it much more appealing [than a traditional master’s program].”

While Sarah knew that getting her master’s was the best next step she could take for her career, she had no idea how quickly she’d put it to work. Right after taking a job as the director of nursing for a small rural hospital, Sarah found out that the hospital had been given a 28-day shutdown notice from the federal government. She had less than a month to change the hospital’s policies or risk losing key Medicare and Medicaid funding — a move that would force the hospital to close.


The stakes were high: if the hospital closed, residents in the area wouldn’t have access to a local hospital. In a community where more than half of the children and 40 percent of the elderly live in poverty, closing the only hospital would have disastrous implications for the overall health and wellbeing of the community. “The fact that that community would have lost the hospital, meaning they would have been over 40 miles to the next nearest healthcare facility, would've been devastating for them,” Sarah said.

With no time to lose, Sarah went to work. “I ended up integrating my [master's] capstone project into one of those primary issues that they were noncompliant with, which was their documentation of wound care practices with their patients,” she said. “Along with several other things that we had to work on, we were able to get the hospital back into compliance and they did not get shut down.”


Even now since Sarah has moved on from her job at the hospital, she still counts the experience as one of the most impactful of her life. “Rural medicine is close to my heart,” she said. “The fact that that hospital is still there and thriving makes me very proud for that community, not just for myself.”

These days, Sarah works as an occupational health nurse director at an international company, where she oversees a nursing staff providing care for more than 800 employees. Though she’s no longer in a hospital setting, her work does have one thing in common with her previous job: she’s still making sure that everything is compliant with federal regulations. “I never thought I would be a compliance person, but I like the black and white and fixing what's broken,” Sarah said.


It’s a tough job, but somebody’s got to do it — and, at the end of the day, Sarah said she knows that she’s making a healthier, safer workplace for her colleagues. Knowing that her work is making a difference in someone else’s life is a huge reward, Sarah explained.

Sarah can trace her success back to her long journey with nursing, from her military service to eventually earning her master’s degree from WGU. Having the flexibility to continue her education on her own time, from her own home, was a game changer for Sarah — and she hopes other students will follow in her footsteps at WGU.

“Make it a serious contender,” she said. “They give you all the support possible to make sure that you stay on track and that you graduate on time or even ahead of time, in my case. They're not going to let you fail, as long as you're willing to put the work into it.”

Credits: Photography: Matthew Zach; Art Direction: Samara Grossman; Hair and Makeup: Ashley Schultz; Wardrobe Styling: Alexis Badiyi; Production: Cassie Doyle