Heritage nursing students get hands-on doing their part to stop the COVID-19 pandemic.
Heritage nursing student Viviana Rico remembers the January 2021 day she opened the email from Linda Rossow. “Are you interested in helping at the Toppenish vaccine clinics over the next several months?” it read.
Rossow, an assistant nursing professor at Heritage, was asking her students – the 2022 nursing cohort – to help vaccinate the people of the Yakima Valley against COVID-19.
Rico emailed back immediately: “Count me in.”
What Rico was saying “yes” to would involve traveling to several hospitals over several months, handling hundreds of vials of invaluable vaccine, and injecting it into the arms of hundreds of front-line healthcare workers, the elderly, and first responders.
Each person would walk away a little more immune from the deadly virus than when they had arrived. The people of the Yakima Valley would be a little safer.
Rico’s biggest personal takeaway would be immense satisfaction and positive feelings about her contribution – and an enhanced clarity regarding her place in nursing.
For this Pasco native, knowing immediately that she wanted to help fight COVID was as easy as deciding to follow a half dozen of her family members into nursing.
“I always loved hearing the ways they help people,” said Rico. “In nursing, you meet people, you help them, you put in your little grain of salt to help them get well.
“I just thought, ‘What a unique opportunity!’ I remember thinking it was super cool that I was going to be part of the change back to ‘normal’. That this would be something I would tell my grandchildren.”
Before her work as part of that change could take place, Rico needed to re-focus on something she and her classmates had learned more than a year earlier.
“Review giving shots,” Rossow had told her students.
Because of the pandemic, Rico and her fellow students had been out of direct contact with any patients for almost a year.
Rossow’s students had learned to give intramuscular injections – what the COVID shot is – beginning their sophomore year. With six semesters, including the summer between junior and senior year, clinical experiences occur beginning with the second semester for sophomores and extend through to their final semester as seniors.
In the clinical experiences Heritage nursing students undertake, each student has a clinical supervisor or a “preceptor” – an individual nurse who oversees the activities of that student, working with them to become proficient in the skills they’ve learned in class and in lab. That work includes accessing meds, ensuring they’re the right ones, given the right way, at the right time, whether it’s a flu vaccination – or, now, a COVID vaccination.
“Everything that student does until senior year is always with a clinical supervisor or a preceptor,” said Rossow. “That training, testing and supervision ensure that once they’re out in the ‘real world,’ they’re adhering to good practices.”
Once Rico reviewed her old notes and watched a video or two, she felt ready to give the vaccine. But the magnitude of the situation was not lost on her.
“Being part of this whole thing as a nursing student – that’s a big deal. I almost couldn’t believe I was doing it. It’s such a big responsibility.
“I remember thinking to myself, ‘You’re helping make a real change.’”
Like Rico, Camryn Newell counts her role in the COVID vaccination effort as perhaps her most significant clinical experience to date.
It’s reaffirmed her knowledge that she wants to be part of the solution to big challenges.
Newell’s focus on nursing originated with family, just like Rico’s. Her grandmother was a nurse and, as a child, Newell was fascinated with the medical world. By age 15, she knew she wanted to be a nurse.
Once she entered the Heritage nursing program, her coursework set the stage for the real work that takes place in clinicals.
“Sub-Q injections, giving oral meds, assessments – they’re all part of what we do in clinicals,” said Newell. “In every one, you get more experience.”
As they gain experience, students learn more about what settings and situations really appeal to them.
HANDLING LIQUID GOLD
In the early morning hours a couple of weeks after Rossow’s email, Rico, Newell, and another Heritage nursing student, Payton Moore, climbed into a car and headed toward Astria Toppenish Hospital, a few minutes from the Heritage campus.
Walking into a conference-room-turned- vaccination center, the women were greeted by three of the hospital’s nurses leading that day’s effort. The first vaccine recipients – mostly hospital staff – began arriving at 7:30 am.
Newell says she and her fellow students all felt some trepidation when it came to handling the vaccine, in this case, the Pfizer version: “You feel like you’re handling liquid gold.”
Years more familiar with such processes was their supervisor that day, Yvonne Ebbelaar, RN, BSN, director of critical care at the hospital, and adjunct nursing professor at Heritage. She said having the Heritage students there is good for everyone.
“We love having the students,” she said. “It takes a team to keep the whole process going. The students are instrumental in helping us keep the flow moving. Their presence means our staff can stay on their units and do their work caring for their patients.”
As an instructor herself, Ebbelaar says any opportunity a student has to practice over and over helps them gain that “muscle memory” that’s important for a soon-to-be RN.
Altogether, the three students administered a total of about 100 injections that morning.
Five days later, Rico and Newell repeated their work at Prosser Memorial Hospital. Both students had done two clinical rotations there and were specifically requested by a charge nurse they’d worked with.
“As nursing students, that’s a really big deal,” said Rico. “That made us feel really good.”
There, they worked as part of a bigger team, this time giving the Moderna vaccine, with about 300 recipients, in a seven-hour shift.
By the time this story publishes, Rico, Newell and many other HU nursing students are expected to have been part of providing hundreds more vaccines to Yakima Valley residents.
Newell said she feels a new appreciation for nurses and other healthcare professionals on the pandemic front lines.
“Thinking what they’ve all have had to go through – they’re putting themselves and their families at risk so that they can help other individuals in their time of need. That altruism is amazing.”
Altruism, supporting their community, gaining needed expertise – all are part of the experience the university’s nursing program works to provide its students.
Rossow names catastrophic events like the 2010 Haiti earthquake, Hurricane Katrina, and the 9/11 attacks as examples of the need for the emergency effort preparedness and activation that’s required as communities come together to treat victims and save lives.
“All their lives, our students will be asked to contribute to emergency efforts in their communities and beyond,” said Rossow.
“The COVID vaccination effort is far bigger than any single event we’ve had. It’s also bigger than any one entity can handle – because it’s affected everyone everywhere.
“The more students who can be involved in this experience, the more valuable they’ll be to their communities.”
Nurses tend to be people with compassion, Rossow said, with a strong desire to help, whether that’s in volunteering with a massive event like a pandemic or doing first aid for their child’s soccer team.
“Heritage students’ community-focused altruism – a deep desire to give back to their communities – is extremely strong.
“Heritage nurses are different. They’re bringing something to their work that’s kind of indefinable.
It’s a presence, a compassion that focuses on patient-centered, family-centered care.
“A big part of who we are is that being on tribal land, we reflect those values of taking care of our community.”
FINDING THEIR PLACE
When she graduates, Rico wants to stay in the Yakima Valley. She’s learned from her clinical experiences that she loves the intensity of the emergency department.
“All of a sudden, a crisis comes, and you have to move. I was part of a ‘code’ one day and, when I did that, I felt, ‘This is me.’ I knew it.”
Newell is still deciding. She’d like to stay in the area in “any opportunity that would be a growth experience.”
Both students feel they got more from their COVID vaccination experience than they gave.
“People are so grateful,” Newell said. “They said things like, ‘You guys are like superheroes!’ It was a great experience to feel so needed and so appreciated.”
“Whenever someone sat down, just as they thanked me for giving it to them, I made sure to tell them, ‘Thank you for doing this’,” Rico said.
“I felt really kind of proud of the people willing to get the vaccine. We all have to do our part,” she said. “We’re (nursing students) just doing our part too.”