SFA clinical nursing instructor Erin Bailey checks a newborn baby's vital signs in the labor-and-delivery area of the 9,000-square-foot simulation laboratory inside the new DeWitt School of Nursing.

Stephen F. Austin State University will celebrate the opening of its new Richard and Lucille DeWitt School of Nursing building on Jan. 24 with a ribbon-cutting ceremony and tours of the $13 million state-of-the-art academic facility.

The grand-opening celebration will begin with a ribbon-cutting ceremony at 2 p.m., followed by tours from 2:30 to 4 p.m. at the new building, located at 5707 North St. The public is invited to attend.

With the opening of the new building, the award-winning DeWitt School of Nursing will almost quadruple its space to 41,000 square feet, including a 9,000-square-foot simulation laboratory that director Glenda Walker describes as "the heart and soul" of the new facility. The laboratory is designed like a hospital and includes an emergency room with ambulance bay, an intensive-care unit, a pediatric area and a neonatal intensive care unit.

"All of these areas are outfitted with the same modern equipment and technology you would expect to find in any hospital," Walker said.

The simulation laboratory also will feature five of the most advanced patient mannequins available for nursing education. The computerized Sim Man 3G mannequins can simulate almost any patient condition. The conditions are manipulated remotely by instructors in a high-tech control room. A video-monitoring system allows students to be filmed as they treat the "patients," and the video can be streamed live into classrooms or recorded for later review.

The simulation laboratory will be named in honor of longtime SFA supporters Ed and Gwen Cole of Nacogdoches for their interest in and passion for nursing education. A private foundation provided the School of Nursing with a grant to equip a 100-student computer lab within the facility.

"It is truly a state-of-the-art facility," Walker said. "But I also like to think of it as a facility of the heart because it would not have been possible without the support of some very generous friends of the School of Nursing."

The 17-acre site for the new building was donated to SFA in 2006 by Lucille DeWitt of Nacogdoches and her late husband, Richard DeWitt. The site had formerly served as a distribution center for the Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants owned by the couple. The following year, the Texas Legislature passed House Bill 1775 authorizing the construction of the nursing facility on the donated property.

"This wonderful new facility is going to benefit not only our own SFA nursing students, but the rest of us, as well," said DeWitt, a longtime hospital and community volunteer and advocate for the nursing profession.

"Nurses are important to all of us at some point in our lives, and we all want ourselves and our loved ones to be cared for by nurses with the very best training available."

By opening the new building, SFA is helping to address the growing need for new nurses throughout the state, Walker said. Not only can the university now accommodate many more nursing students each semester, but the simulation laboratory also will be available to students from other area nursing programs, as well as to experienced nurses required to demonstrate competencies to supervisors before starting new jobs.

The new building also includes four large classrooms, faculty and administrative offices, a conference room, separate lounges for students and faculty and a large, enclosed atrium. For the corridor entry, the university commissioned four large painted panels depicting nurses interacting with patients. The first of the four panels to be completed features nursing pioneer Florence Nightingale and will be on display at the grand opening.

Enrollment in SFA's nursing program is on the rise. Currently, there are 855 SFA students in the nursing program, the second-largest major offered at the university.

Recently, the DeWitt School of Nursing was awarded a $25,000 grant from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board for exceptional performance in producing initial licensure registered nurses. Of the nearly 100 nursing programs in the state, only three were recognized for meeting graduation and licensure rates of at least 85 percent and demonstrating best practices in achieving these rates.

The DeWitt School of Nursing posted a graduation and initial licensure rate of 98 percent in 2009, the highest of any Bachelor of Science in Nursing program in Texas.