BLOOMINGTON — Educators at Bloomington-Normal’s three nursing programs see silver linings amid pandemic challenges, including a higher profile for nurses in general and public health in particular.
Although the pivot was tough, “all of us in health care are problem solvers. We got into this because we like to solve problems,” said Jennifer O’Connor, dean of health sciences and director of nursing education at Heartland Community College.
Victoria Folse, professor and director of the Illinois Wesleyan University School of Nursing, for instance, had to get 20 nursing students studying in Spain back to the United States.
“The faculty has found all kinds of new resources,” said O’Connor. “Hopefully, at the end of all this, we will have learned some things and gained some new skills.”
While online simulations and substitute projects might not be as good as the “real world,” Folse has no doubt that this year’s graduates are prepared.
“I don’t have any trepidation,” said Folse. “If I was in the hospital and they were my caregivers, I wouldn’t be concerned.”
Illinois State University already was using “standardized patients we trained to play the role of a patient,” said Judy Neubrander, dean of Mennonite College of Nursing. “We’re able to use our standardized patients in a virtual way.”
Doing telehealth visits with the standardized patients, the students went through all kinds of scenarios, she said.
“It’s not the same as being in a hospital. But our students say, ‘We’re still learning,’” said Neubrander.
She thinks there could be greater interest in public health as the pandemic has focused on its importance.
“It’s not flashy. You aren’t starting an IV every day. It’s about education,” said Neubrander. “We preach that vaccinations and herd immunity does make a difference.”
Folse said, “Ironically our seniors were in their public health clinicals when everything shut down. It was a real-world opportunity to see public health playing out in our community.”
Applications are strong at all three institutions and that is not expected to change.
For those who go into nursing, helping is part of their personality, said Neubrander.
“Some would say it’s a calling,” she said. “I don’t think it will deter them.”
Sydney Shanks of Bloomington, who is receiving her nursing degree from IWU this month, said the pandemic made her feel stronger about her career choice.
“We in health care are the first and the last line of defense,” said Shanks, a Central Catholic High School graduate. “It showed the public how important health care workers are.”
She added, "It's a tough and rigorous profession but it's very rewarding."
The caring aspects of nursing are often shown, but the pandemic has highlighted the critical thinking skills crucial to nursing, noted O’Connor.
'Not the same thing'
Although sites have reopened for national licensing exams, uncertainty remains in other areas.
Heartland’s first-year nursing students were supposed to receive their maternal clinical experience this spring, said O’Connor, they missed in-person experience with labor and delivery and assessment of newborns.
They can do simulations but “it’s just not the same as being there,” O’Connor said. “You can’t replicate the social dynamics … of how a child’s illness impacts the whole family.”
Many internships and summer placements are in jeopardy. Folse said schools are looking for supplemental experiences to help fill gaps of what nursing students would have gotten over the summer.
It’s not yet clear whether hospitals will be ready as clinical sites this fall. “We’ll start with virtual simulations and transition to direct patient care when it’s possible to do so,” said Folse.
Students in Heartland’s certified nursing assistant program had to take an “incomplete” grade when their clinical experiences were cut short. Those already working in a long-term care setting can count their hours as clinical hours under a waiver from an agency that’s part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, but that doesn’t help CNA students without jobs or employed in another field, said O’Connor.
Radiography, physical therapy assistant and medical assistant students are also seeing delays because of the need for hands-on experience.
If you can’t go to a lab or clinical site, you can’t learn about how to arrange a person on the table for an effective X-ray, explained O’Connor.
It is important to work through the challenges for all students in healthcare-related fields, she said. “They’re really needed in the community.”
Contact Lenore Sobota at (309) 820-3240. Follow her on Twitter: @Pg_Sobota
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