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Student nurses welcome challenge to prepare for career amid COVID-19 crisis

Student nurses welcome challenge to prepare for career amid COVID-19 crisis


Sarah Schroeder and Karina Rivera worked to monitor the condition of a “patient” who they were caring for at the high fidelity simulation lab inside Gateway Technical College’s Inspire Center.

Through the two-way glass, instructors asked the third-semester nursing students about the patient’s condition after administering morphine -- blood pressure, mean arterial pressure and oxygen levels, among other things.

For several hours, the two occupied a room that resembled something in a local hospital -- complete with a monitor for vital signs, intubation equipment and a ventilator. The atmosphere was quietly intense as they stabilized the patient.

A short break on Wednesday allowed them a breather from that intensity. They admitted, even though they’re not working with a “live” patient, the situation is just as stressful. Both work jobs at area assisted living facilities when they’re not in school.

Simulations taken seriously

Schroeder and Rivera talked in general terms about the simulation, but not too much -- careful not to reveal details that would compromise their sim patient’s safety and privacy. It’s that serious.

“We’re simulating ARDS, which is acute respiratory distress syndrome ... it’s actually pretty similar to what we’re seeing in the COVID pandemic with the symptoms,” said Schroeder, “and how they’re treating people.”

Schroeder, 22, of Kenosha, knew what she was signing up for when she decided she wanted to become a nurse. A certified nursing assistant and licensed practical nurse, she’s on track to graduate with an associate's degree in nursing, with the opportunity to become a registered nurse, in December.

Rivera, 26, of Lake Geneva, is on target to graduate in August. Like Schroeder, she, too, has LPN and CNA qualifications. She described how the simulations take them through the same steps nurses would go through with actual patients from assessing condition to consulting with doctors and therapists and other nurses.

“Everything is done like it is in real life. So, it’s kind of stressful,” she said. “Especially now. We’ve never had to deal with anything like this.”

Graduation concerns

In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, students at Gateway expressed concerns about whether they would be able to complete their degree programs and graduate.

Clinicals, or the real-world experience they are required to obtain at recommended hospitals and healthcare sites, were canceled due to the pandemic.

That’s where Gateway’s state-of-the-art technology and resources -- including the simulation lab -- came into play. Since April 27, students have been scheduled at the intensive sim lab sessions on campus.

The sessions are one of the few on-site activities that are an exception to the state’s Safer at Home orders because the college is training health care and first responders, incoluding EMS, nursing, fire service and police.

“We were able to move rather quickly and change our delivery method so we are able to use virtual simulation and video conferencing software to continue to keep our students engaged and also for them to continue to meet their competencies,” said Vicki Hulback, Gateway’s Dean of the School of Health, a registered nurse who also has a doctorate in nursing.

This year, 56 student nurses will graduate with associate's degrees and a number of them are in the process of preparing for state board examinations next week.

She said instructors meet with students in the program on a day-to-day basis via conferencing and the virtual simulation presents them with in-hospital scenarios that walk them through charting and caring for patients.

“Students talk to the patient and 'she' responds,” she said. “We are allowed to use a certain amount of simulation in clinicals.”

With the ongoing pandemic, the program is now allowed to use the simulations to a greater degree. Normally, simulations for clinicals are used 25 percent of the time at Gateway, but that has expanded to 50 percent.

“The most important part is bringing them back and debriefing them -- really talking about why they made the decisions that they did to help them really develop that clinical reasoning,” she said. “It’s a skill that develops over time.”

Pandemic preparedness

Hulback said one of the first things the college did when the pandemic struck was create a training module so students had a basic understanding on how to protect themselves, their patients and family members.

“But it was also for them to understand the process of planning for a pandemic in an organization, knowing they’re going into the workforce,” she said. “We want them to understand why it’s so important to respond early to the pandemic so they can be prepared as future leaders.”

The school has also helped to accommodate students fearing exposure to the coronavirus, whether in coming to campus or because they already work in health care, have opportunity to come in contact with the virus and need to quarantine.

“If there’s a student who feels uncomfortable, they can have an incomplete and come back when (the pandemic) is over and complete their labs in person,” she said.

The vocation

Rivera, a single mother of two, said before choosing to become a nurse she wanted to be an architect. But having gone through Gateway’s program she knows now that she’s found her calling.

“I feel like … I’m here on a purpose -- to help people,” said Rivera.

And just as important, she’s found she can also be a role model.

“I want to show my kids that if I could do it, then you can do anything, too. You want to show people that you’re more than just a statistic,” said Rivera, who wants to become a nurse in the mental health field.

She also wants to help educate communities to stay healthy. In particular, she said there is lack of education among Hispanics about risks and how to prevent the spread of diseases, especially the coronavirus.

“Some people are going, like, It’s no big deal,’” she said. “And you might not be sick, but you could be spreading it and not know it and getting other people sick, or it's killing other people. People just don’t think about that.”

For Schroeder, entering the health care profession was something she thought about when she was younger, but it was a nurse who came to talk to her high school class in Racine that sealed the deal for her.

“I just found it really interesting and I’ve always found learning about different diseases and the anatomy and physiology of the body really fascinating,” said Schroeder. “I loved being a CNA and just decided I wanted to continue.”

Schroeder, who aspires to work as an operating room nurse, said the job isn’t for everyone.

“I just feel this is my focus,” she said. “It’s what I’m meant to do and I really enjoy it.”

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