Nurses-in-training have persevered despite the challenges of COVID-19
By Sylwia Borawski, March 14, 2022
When I decided to pursue a career in nursing, I could never have anticipated how difficult school would be. Despite the challenges created by the pandemic, such as virtual learning and missed clinical time, my fellow students and I have persevered. Unlike nursing students before us, we have been granted a unique opportunity to demonstrate resilience early in our nursing careers.
In March 2020, we were removed from our clinical placements indefinitely because of COVID-19. It was unknown when we would be allowed to return due to the pandemic’s unpredictable course. I was worried whether I would graduate on time, since clinical hours are a mandatory requirement, and I grieved the loss of opportunity to help others.
By September, my peers and I were permitted to return to the clinical setting as COVID-19 case numbers declined. I was excited to return to patient care, but shared the fears of my classmates about working on the front lines of the pandemic.
Initially denied the vaccine
As the second wave began in fall 2020 and outbreaks occurred in the hospital, we were again removed from our clinical placements because we were not allowed to be in contact with COVID-19 patients. However, in January 2021, the rules changed again and we were granted permission to provide direct care to such patients. This guaranteed we could care for all patients in the clinical setting and would not be removed if an outbreak occurred.
Further, hope was now spreading through the hospital because COVID-19 vaccinations were made accessible to all hospital employees. We were excited and eager to get vaccinated, but soon found out that nursing students would not be included in the health-care worker category for vaccine eligibility.
We were upset by this news and felt that the exclusion was inequitable because we were providing direct patient care during our clinical placements. We felt we should have been offered the vaccine. Many of us were concerned regarding the health implications of being unvaccinated and learning on the front lines.
We were given the option of deferring our clinical placements, yet very few of my peers chose to do so. No alternative choices were provided, and deferring would have caused a delay in graduating.
Advocating for ourselves
As time passed, several of my peers contracted the virus. Although their symptoms were mild, this heightened fears about being unvaccinated. We advocated for ourselves to our clinical placement coordinators and, after nearly four months of waiting for a decision, we were informed by the hospital that all nursing students were eligible for vaccination.
We felt we should have been offered the vaccine.
Getting vaccinated helped us to feel hope, but it also reminded us of our patients who succumbed to the virus before they could get vaccinated. Typically, student nurses are not exposed to death until years three and four of our program, but the pandemic forced us to encounter it earlier. It has taken an emotional toll on all of us.
What exactly does a nursing student do at their clinical placement? Many people may assume that we just observe the nurses as they work. However, we are active members of the health-care team. From completing daily head-to-toe assessments, administering medications, monitoring vital signs, checking blood sugar levels, inserting catheters, and more, we work tirelessly to provide our patients with the care they need.
Learning these skills virtually was challenging; applying them during the pandemic was very stressful. In comparison to before the pandemic, we were granted additional opportunities to apply our clinical skills because units were often short-staffed as nurses fell ill with the virus. Despite this staffing shortage, patient census was high, and the patients we cared for were sicker and had complex needs because of the delay in seeking care from fear of contracting the virus in the hospital.
Advocating for our patients
Beyond learning and mastering skills in the clinical setting, we also advocate for our patients since we have many opportunities to talk with them and hear their concerns. These conversations are an essential component of patient-centred care, and became a lifeline for isolated patients during hospital visitor policy restrictions.
Though our efforts in caring for patients during their most vulnerable times may not be widely recognized, we know that we have touched their lives forever during this challenging time. To many, we are just post-secondary students who need to study, meet deadlines, and satisfy academic requirements. However, we lead a double life. We are invisible “health-care heroes.”
There is much we have yet to learn as student nurses, but I am excited to further my knowledge alongside my peers, who inspire me every day.
Sylwia Borawski is a third-year BScN student, student researcher, and Clinical Learning Centre peer mentor at the University of Windsor, Ont.