As Alisha Gregory prepared to join nurses in Providence Seaside Hospital’s medical surgical unit as part of her last term in the nursing program at Clatsop Community College, she wondered, “What am I about to walk into?”
None of the 13 students on track to graduate in June went into nursing expecting a quiet life without surprises. But they didn’t expect to enter the final stretch in the middle of a pandemic, either.
Most colleges in Oregon moved classes online in March, following an executive order from Gov. Kate Brown to help stem the spread of the coronavirus. Nursing, allied health and emergency medical technician programs were exempt. The hope was to prepare health care graduates for the workforce as quickly as possible.
Clatsop County has reported six cases of the virus. None of the people infected have had to be hospitalized. With government restrictions on elective surgeries and other nonemergency procedures in place until Friday, hospitals have been relatively quiet.
But ahead of Gregory’s practicum at Providence Seaside, the situation was changing daily.
Schools and businesses were closing. Hospitals were scrambling to adjust their policies and potentially accommodate an influx of seriously ill people. Gregory worried for herself, for her four children, for — it seemed like — nearly everyone she knew.
She qualified for emergency day care for her youngest child. The first day she dropped him off, she felt suddenly overwhelmed. “I didn’t like that I couldn’t keep him safe,” she said.
The anxiety did not dissipate until she actually walked through the hospital doors in Seaside and saw for herself the policies at play to keep everyone safe. “I was nervous and now I’m in and now I see, OK, we can handle this. We can be safe.”
Gregory is excited, she says.
“You just want to join the fight and start working and be a part of the solution,” she said.
Nursing students are not allowed to care for patients who may have the coronavirus. Still, there is the reality of all that is unknown about the virus and who may be infected.
At the end of every long shift, Gregory strips down in the garage and showers before she walks in to see her family.
This year was going to be the year of the nurse, a celebration of the 200th anniversary of the birth of Florence Nightingale, the woman credited with founding modern nursing.
Nothing drops a spotlight on nursing like a global medical crisis. For the second-year nursing students at Clatsop Community College, the pandemic has only strengthened their resolve.
“I think it just really shows the toughness of nurses, the grit of nurses,” nursing student Fayth Blackwell said of the response to the virus. “It makes me feel even more satisfied and happy and proud to be a part of this industry.”
Blackwell decided to pursue nursing because she had always loved science, loved people and saw the profession as a way to blend both. She started out interested in midwifery and women’s health but, after starting classes, found every avenue of nursing fascinating in some way. Now, though, she is most drawn to critical care and public health.
Clatsop County’s nursing students are not being thrown into the fray quite yet. Elsewhere, some states have relaxed student nursing rules so they can help deal with the coronavirus. But the pandemic still influences nearly everything local students do now.
When they are in clinics and hospitals working with mentor nurses, they wear gear they wouldn’t normally wear. They wear a mask at all times. They are responding to hospital and clinic policies that are only a few weeks old. They monitor their patients for signs of early symptoms of the virus. Before they leave a facility, their temperature is taken.
Though students practice how to respond to events such as a pandemic through case studies and simulations, it was all theoretical until this year. Nursing students in years prior never actually had to face anything like the coronavirus, said Tina Kotson, a nursing instructor at the college.
Hygiene and safety measures — the donning and doffing, the putting on and taking off of isolation equipment that protects nurses and patients — are among the first lessons new nursing students learn. But the virus has brought home other realities of a job in health care.
“It’s a lot of unknown things all the time,” Kotson said. “I would like to tell budding nurses they’ll be guaranteed safety, but that would be like telling a soldier, ‘You’ll never have to go to war.’ Or a firefighter, ‘You’ll never have to run into a burning building.’”
The coronavirus crisis “is like a living, breathing laboratory,” she added. “Despite this being a hard, negative time, potentially they’re growing from it, they’re learning from it.”
Coronavirus aside, there remains an enduring need for nurses in the region.
“In our community, we have a lot of sick people and it has nothing to do with COVID-19,” Kotson said.