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Nobody starts a doctoral program expecting it to be a walk in the park or even a 5K jog.

But Jeffrey Fillmore’s journey to earning a Doctor of Nursing Practice at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh turned into a marathon due to a serious medical diagnosis of his own.

Jeffrey Fillmore and family

Last spring, Fillmore was raising three children (including twins born in fall 2018) with his wife, Sammi; commuting from Gresham to Oshkosh to work full-time as a registered nurse for Advocate Aurora Health; and finishing up his DNP in the family nurse practitioner (FNP) emphasis at UWO.

He was on course to graduate with his cohort in May 2020 when he was stopped in his tracks by a diagnosis of Hodgkin’s lymphoma, which required open chest surgery to remove a tumor followed by chemotherapy and radiation.

“The pandemic had changed my work schedule dramatically and added stress. I was so close to graduation, and so ready,” Fillmore said. “Life was already a challenge … then I got sick and had to take care of my own health.”

Bonnie Nickasch

UWO associate professor Bonnie Nickasch, who leads the FNP program, became concerned about Fillmore during the 2019-2020 academic year as he just didn’t seem to be himself.

“At first, no one knew the severity of the health issues he was about to face,” she said. “Luckily, I had developed a strong and supportive relationship with Jeff throughout the program. I believe it was this approach that helped Jeff feel comfortable reaching out to share his medical situation with me early on. Being upfront allowed us time to come up with a plan that was flexible and doable.”

Indeed, Fillmore credits Nickasch for making it possible for him to complete the requirements he needed to graduate when he was ready to resume his studies in fall 2020.

“I couldn’t have done it without her,” he said. “It was phenomenal to work with her.”

Nickasch was inspired by Fillmore’s perseverance.

“It has been very rewarding to stay in touch and work with Jeff throughout his complex medical journey from the shock of the initial diagnosis through the pain of surgery and the ups and downs of chemotherapy and radiation,” she said. “Throughout his comeback, I was able to work with faculty and preceptors to extend deadlines, develop alternate assignments that still met course objectives and coach Jeff on when he appeared ready to take his certification exam.”

Kathleen Elertson

Fillmore also is thankful for associate professor Kathleen Elertson’s guidance on a major component of his DNP—the scholarly project.

The title of this work “Concussion Education for the Coaching Staff of an Athletic Department in a Small School District in Central Wisconsin,” appeared alongside Fillmore’s name in the commencement program when he finally earned that DNP last month.

“I was so excited to see him ‘virtually’ earn his doctoral degree…six months after the rest of his cohort,” Nickasch said. “Many students may have given up, but not Jeff. He is intelligent, kind and compassionate. He will make a mighty fine nurse practitioner.”

While Fillmore achieved “cure” status in September, he’ll still require close monitoring for the next five years. Having personal experience with a serious illness has given him a deeper perspective on the nursing profession and the art of healing.

“First and foremost, I learned what I am putting my own patients through,” he said. “It’s easy to forget the details of what is happening to you when everything is new and scary. These insights have allowed me to better communicate and connect with patients.”

UWO offers two emphases in its DNP program, which prepares graduates for the highest level of nursing practice:

  • The FNP emphasis prepares grads to work as advanced practice nurses who can assess patient needs, order and interpret tests and diagnose diseases and prescribe treatments.
  • The nurse anesthesia emphasis prepares grads as advance practice nurses who can administer anesthesia for surgery and other medical procedures.

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