As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to evolve and surge, reinforcements are preparing to deploy at Regis University’s Loretto Heights School of Nursing. Come May, approximately 300 new nurses will graduate and enter the health care world.
For Regis nursing student Angie Truong, who graduates in the class of 2022, COVID-19 hasn’t swayed her career plans. Nursing was a “last-minute decision” for Truong as she neared the end of high school. She said she knew she wanted to work with people in the medical field, and nursing seemed like the perfect choice.
“I thought, ‘You know, this sounds like something I really want to do,’” Truong said. “Despite all that’s happened, nursing is still something I’m really looking forward to after graduation.”
A calling is a calling
Despite the ever-daunting numbers of breakthrough cases, emerging variants and crippling weight on the shoulders of American hospitals, students aren’t shaken, Dean Catherine Witt of the School of Nursing said. In fact, the pandemic lit a fire under a lot of Regis’ nurses-in-training.
“I think for the most part, it really inspired people to say, ‘Hey, I can make a difference in the world. I really do want to get out there and take care of these patients,’” Witt said. “I think there are some students that are really excited to work in hospitals, says Witt. “And others I think there are so many options in nursing that students are really considering, well what do I really want to do?.”
Not every hospital was able to take students during the initial outbreak, so Regis prioritized getting the nursing school seniors their clinical experiences, as much as possible. There were simulations, Witt said, where a student had a virtual patient. They made treatment plans for them, then reviewed those tactics with faculty.
The traditional classroom settings were moved online in an effort to limit contact so the labs and clinicals could be done in person with peers and instructors present.
In the beginning of the pandemic in 2020, there was anxiety among nurses about the lack of personal protective equipment (PPE), unsureness about how contagious COVID-19 was, and not enough understanding of best treatment strategies, Witt said.
The uncertainty has eased with the development of vaccines and the broadening of information on what doctors and nurses were dealing with. Students have seen a steady increase in survival rates among COVID-19 patients, and in turn, have watched as the world’s health professionals have learned and adapted on the fly to the changing landscape of a pandemic world.
“It’s been an opportunity to learn how to take care of severe respiratory diseases like this, the best ways to treat patients, the best ways to care for them, and we’ve seen survival rates increase as we’ve learned,” says Witt. “So it’s been a tremendous learning experience for all of health care, including our students. They’ve seen that change over the two years.”
Regis University student nurses are aware that burnout rates among experienced health care workers in the U.S. are soaring.
Dr. Victor Dzau, president of the National Academy of Medicine, said in a recent webinar by the U.S. News and World Report that since the start of the pandemic, 60 to 75 percent of clinicians are reporting symptoms of depression, exhaustion, PTSD and sleep disorders.
Dzau said that roughly 20 percent of health care workers have quit the field since the pandemic started. The 4 out of 5 who have stayed claim that worker shortages have affected their ability to treat patients’ needs safely and properly. Two years in, and with the emergence of the Omicron variant putting pressure on hospitals again, the future remains daunting.
“I think it’s given us the opportunity to really talk about resiliency, and how to use reflection, how to (practice) self-care,” says Witt. Nurses are not always good at taking care of themselves, so for faculty and students, we’ve had to really think about that. ‘What do we need to do to take care of ourselves, so that we can take care of our patients?”
Despite the challenges, Susan Dalbey, associate professor of nursing at Regis, said people still want to be nurses, and interest in the program hasn’t waned.
“Absolutely. There has been no drop off, and in fact, we’ve increased numbers slightly, which was our plan prior to the pandemic. Our target numbers are still there. Our program is relatively competitive, and so we always have more applicants than we have spaces, and that has not changed,” Dalbey said.
So how is morale?
There were a few students who opted to step away and mentally reset, or in some cases, protect or take care of their families or children, Dalbey said. But, she added, the overwhelming majority who started in the program to become a nurse have not reconsidered.
Like the rest of the world, almost three years into the pandemic, students are much more accustomed to switching to a remote format at a moment’s notice, and being flexible with the program on a day-to-day basis. They “now know what they’re dealing with”, Dalbey said, and students like Angie Truong have taken each change in stride.
“Considering the circumstances, I would say my experience has been one of the luckier ones,” Truong said. “Most of my experience has been in person for clinicals, so I have been able to go to hospitals and get those experiences. But I know for a lot of people, especially at other nursing schools, their clinicals have been online or their hours have been cut short.”
Truong admits the pandemic altered her thinking about working on the front lines. She sees how hospitals are short-staffed, nurses are suffering and overworked without being compensated properly. It’s a tough sell.
“And so it’s made me kind of, right now, reconsider working in the hospital just because of the working conditions. I still want to be a nurse and help patients, but I think considering the circumstances, it’s made it hard for me to think about going to bedside nursing. So I’ve been looking at other alternatives, just until things calm down and we figure out how to deal with the pandemic. I’m back and forth,” Truong said.
“Going through this pandemic, I think I’ve realized that even if something as detrimental as this is going on, you know, things still do go on. We’ll find a way to move past it. And with nursing, you kind of have to be adaptable with everything,” Truong said. “I don’t think COVID-19 is going away anytime soon, so it’s just a matter of being flexible and adaptable.”
“Change is constant in nursing. So these students having to have this change at the last minute, they’ve really become very dynamic and very resilient with all of this, says Dalbey. “I think they’re going to be a lot more relaxed, calm, OK with change, as opposed to what people usually are. They became accustomed to it, and I see them really thriving with change.”