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Nursing students and grads facing COVID-19 pandemic head-on

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Posted at 6:50 PM, May 11, 2020
and last updated 2020-05-12 15:39:55-04

HELENA — This year thousands of college graduates across the country will be joining the healthcare industry as nurses. Unlike their colleagues from 2019, they are joining their profession during one of the most challenging times.

Even with the dangers of COVID-19, many nursing students are rising to the challenge to work on the front lines of the pandemic.

"I don’t think there’s a ton that could prepare us for it, because I mean no one’s been prepared for it,” said Julia Wilbur, Carroll College Nursing Class of 2020.

Wilbur just graduated from college and is soon heading to Washington D.C.where she’ll work as a Neuro intensive care unit nurse at MedStar Hospital Center.

D.C. has recently become an emerging epicenter for the COVID-19 with continual growth in daily cases and deaths.

“It’s difficult and worrisome to think about at times, but at the same time I’ve spent the last three years gathering all these skills to be able to help. So, I would rather use my skills to be a helpful person instead of letting fear hold me back,” said Wilbur.

Those skills are desperately needed at many hospitals and health care facilities right now

Helena College Junior Ashley Lavigne has been working as a certified nursing assistant (CRN) at St. Peter's Health since the first case of COVID-19 hit Montana.

“It has been different for sure,” said Lavigne. “I’ve never experienced anything like it. There were a lot of changes that happened very quickly.”

Lavigne says working through the pandemic is an ever evolving situation that’s required her to adapt quickly. She usually worked as a CNA in the surgical department, but over the past two months Lavigne has manned entrances screening for patients that may show symptoms and helped environmental services clean the hospital.

Educators have been working hard to prepare nursing students for their jobs, but simulating a pandemic isn’t regularly covered.

Carroll College Associate Nursing Professor Maria Brosnan, MSN, APRN, ACNP-BC, CNE, CHSE, helps give future nurses not just the knowledge needed to care for and treat patients, but also to take care of themselves.

“It’s a very stressful time,” said Brosnan. “One thing we try to do with our graduates is to help them build the skills and techniques to maintain good self care no matter what type of situation they’re moving into.”

Brosnan says they discuss the importance of regular sleep, a healthy diet, self reflection and faith. Skills that have become increasingly important with nurses and nursing students across all experiences levels

Patients and their families often depend on nurses to be pillars of strength and guidance during difficult times. It can be hard to prepare a student to take on that type of load, but at the end of the day nurses just want to help those in need.

“Nursing is more than just a job. It is a calling, it is a vocation and we do put ourselves in situations that could potentially harm us,” said Bronsan. “We do all that we can to protect ourselves, our families and loved ones so that we don’t bring anything home, but we also have patients that need us.”

Both Wilbur and Lavigne say they’ve known from a young age they wanted to be a nurse.

“I know it’s going to sound super cliche but caring for people has always been a passion of mine, said Wilbur. “Being able to provide support to people in difficult times is why I wanted to go into critical care. Obviously this might be a scary time for them, but being able to keep that patient informed and educated is empowering for them.”

In the United States alone, there are over 1 million confirmed COVID-19 cases and more than 80,000 deaths associated with this virus.

It would be understandable if any nursing students or graduates wanted to take some time and wait until a vaccine or treatment is readily available before going to work.

Lavigne says COVID-19 is certainly a concern for her, but not one she’d stop helping others over.

“When you work in healthcare the job never really ends,” said Lavigne. “I don’t have any underlying conditions that would stop me from working so I was like if they need the help I’m ready to help...I have wanted to be a nurse ever since I was a kid, it’s all I’ve ever really wanted to do. This whole situation has definitely driven me to be a positive nurse and put wholehearted care into everything I do.”

Nursing students that have completed certain course criteria are able to become a CNA to assist with COVID-19 response and aid healthcare facilities. More information about what is required can be found here.