Catherine Robinweiler leads the class during a lab session at Edmonds College on April 29. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Catherine Robinweiler leads the class during a lab session at Edmonds College on April 29. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Nurses Week, from May 6- 12, honors the nation’s caregivers

Local nursing students and faculty say they couldn’t let the pandemic get in the way of their goals.

National Nurses Week is an annual celebration that begins May 6 and ends May 12, Florence Nightingale’s birthday. National Student Nurses Day on May 8 recognizes nurses in training.

A proposal to honor nurses was first made in 1953 by Dorothy Sutherland, an official with the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare, to President Dwight D.Eisenhower. It wasn’t until 1982 that a joint Congressional resolution designated May 6 as “National Recognition Day for Nurses.” In 1993, the American Nursing Association made it a week-long event.

EDMONDS — Emily Golston waited four years to attend a nursing program.

When the COVID-19 pandemic struck during the second quarter of her training, she vowed to finish her studies, whatever it took.

“Everything was uprooted” said Golston, 34. “But I was not going to let a global pandemic get in my way.”

For more than a year, she’s worn three hats: nursing assistant at Seattle Children’s Hospital; mom to a 3-year-old and nursing student at Edmonds College.

Each role taxed and tested her.

Strict protocols at the pediatric cancer ward where Golston works kept her home for days on end. Employees cannot “enter the building” if they have any symptoms of illness whatsoever, a rule intended to protect the immune-compromised patients they care for, she said. With the deadly coronovirus on the loose, the directive became even more imperative.

“My 3-year-old is a germ factory,” Golston said. Colds and sniffles caused her to miss work, she said. She struggled with online classes even as she encouraged her toddler’s remote learning experiences.

On June 18, Golston will complete the nursing program at Edmonds College, which prepares graduates to become licensed practical nurses (LPN).

For hundreds of nursing students at Edmonds College, Everett Community College and the University of Washington Bothell, the pandemic altered everything — from in-person labs and skills tests to their job conditions — most juggle college classes and work.

At the same time, nursing faculty at the three institutions scrambled to craft a fully online curriculum and improvise ways to teach hands-on skills remotely. Kyra McCoy, director of nursing at Edmonds College, was among those on the academic frontline.

Kyra McCoy, director of nursing, discusses different types of needles during a class at Edmonds College. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Kyra McCoy, director of nursing, discusses different types of needles during a class at Edmonds College. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

“We had to change everything,” said McCoy, who directs the seven quarter, part-time program aimed at students already working in healthcare.

When in-person classes and labs were cancelled last spring, McCoy sent students home with IV and tubing to hang over a door and practice plugging into a stuffed animal. A Zoom call would follow with McCoy watching to see if they were doing the procedure correctly.

When the program’s clinical partners, including some long-term care facilities, closed their doors to students last spring over coronavirus concerns, the program turned to simulation to train students.

High-tech robots that talk and display symptoms and Styrofoam forms became stand-ins for patients and their maladies. Students took their vitals and practiced inserting feeding tubes.

“It was definitely creative,” said Sierra Card, 26, who began the program in fall 2019.

Card works as a nursing assistant at Providence Regional Medical Center Everett, splitting her hours between the psychiatric and labor and delivery units, she said.

When the pandemic struck, Card experienced profound changes at work. To protect patients and staff, Providence closed its doors to visitors except under special circumstance

The move affected all patients but those on the psychiatric unit in particular, she said. “They definitely suffered,” Card said. “They don’t have that support system of family.”

Staff was also in for a tough time, she said.

“Any time a co-worker had a simple cold, they would test you and you had to be out for 14 days,” Card said. That’s since changed. Rapid COVID-19 tests now provide results in less than 30 minutes. Still, if you have any symptoms, even after a negative test, you have to wait 10 days before you can return to work, she said.

Despite the stresses, at no time did Card contemplate a change of career.

“Those that didn’t have a passion for this career, the pandemic kind of weeded them out. I thrive on this…it drove me. Yes, we get burnt-out, but you take a mental health day and take care of yourself and then go back to work.”

On June 18 Card will graduate, fulfilling a childhood dream. “My grandmother was a nurse in the Navy — purely selfless — and I’ve wanted to be just like her since I was a kid.”

Of the program’s 40 students, not a single student dropped out, McCoy said.

Students use a modular skills trainer during class at Edmonds College on April 29. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Students use a modular skills trainer during class at Edmonds College on April 29. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

In-person labs resumed in the fall, but at half-capacity. Adhering to physical distance rules, labs that normally served 20 students were split into two sessions, doubling the faculty’s workloads, McCoy said.

“Our clinical sites came back in the fall, but some students had to supply their own personal protection gear because the (clinics) can’t afford it,” McCoy said.

“It was definitely a hard year going to nursing school,” said Card. “We missed one quarter of clinical, but the director of nursing definitely helped us out,” she said referring to McCoy.

Everett Community College’s two-year nursing program prepares students to be registered nurses (RNs), graduating about 120 students every year.

With COVID, “everything went online,” said Vanessa DePuente, the college’s interim dean of nursing.

When faculty wondered how students would complete their labwork, two companies that sell simulation software — Lippincott Wolters Kluwerand NurseTim — donated their products.

“During the spring 2020 semester, we wanted to make sure nurse educators and nursing students had everything they needed,” Julie Stegman, vice president for nursing at Wolters Kluwer said in an email.

The software operates like a video game as it teaches students how to check vital signs, conduct diagnostic tests and administer medication, DePuente said.

Students normally gain clinical care experience in their first and second quarters at long-term care facilities, DePuente said. “We did not have students in any long-term care setting last spring or fall. Starting this quarter we are going back.”

In-person labs resumed in the fall, but no more than 10 students can attend the sessions, down from 20 or more normally.

“We’ve had to adapt. It’s progressed to acceptance, reluctant acceptance,” DePuente said. As for the class of 2021, “I don’t know of a single student that chose to pause or did not come back,” DePuente said.

Applications for the nursing program are expected to go up. “We had over 250 students in the pre-application class this quarter. Normally it ranges from 80-120,” DePuente said. The program did not admit students last spring, which could explain the increase, she said “but I’m hearing that applications are up at a lot of nursing programs.”

Faculty at the University of Washington Bothell saw many students shift from full-time to part-time status during the pandemic. The university offers a bachelor of science in nursing (BSN) for those who already have an RN degree, and a master’s of nursing track for those who want to be educators.

“Their work has become more strenuous and more stressful — most have kids at home,” said Dr. Meghan Eagen-Torkko, assistant professor and director of nursing.

“It’s difficult to work as a clinician in a pandemic. It goes beyond busyness, it’s the experience of living in a shared, year-long trauma,” Eagen-Torkko said. In fear of bringing the virus home, “people are being required to see their patients as a potential risk to them — that’s not congruent with the career of nursing.”

In spite of the challenges, Eagen-Torkko said she’s impressed with the quality of work students have brought to the program.

“I’m really hoping that when this is over we recognize how much strength and creativity it took for students to get through this,” she said.

This spring Golston is helping administer COVID-19 vaccines at a Snohomish site. “It’s such a small thing to be able to do,” Golston said. “But it feels so profound. Every single injection I give — I can be part of the solution.”

Card has applied for a job treating inmates at the Snohomish County Jail. “I’m very excited. I am ready to start taking care of patients and then go back for my RN and BSN.”

Janice Podsada; jpodsada@heraldnet.com; 425-339-3097; Twitter: JanicePods

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