Jill Humble, the executive director of nursing and allied health at Treasure Valley Community College. (The Enterprise/LILIANA FRANKEL)

ONTARIO – Nurses in training at Treasure Valley Community College have an intense schedule with 720 hours of clinicals, or on-site training, over the course of two years in addition to their classroom study. 

Students and teachers in recent interviews were confident that despite, or perhaps because of, the exhausting nature of the program, graduates enter the workforce well-prepared to deal with the special conditions created by the Covid pandemic. 

“I don’t think you can really ever appreciate it until you’re actually in it,” said Stephanie Hillman, a registered nurse at Saint Alphonsus Medical Center in Nampa who graduated from the program in the spring. “Everyone says it’s so stressful and it’s pretty hard, and you're like ‘Oh, I could do it,’ and then you’re in it and it’s kind of the constant panic and anxiety of getting through it.”

Those feelings don’t last forever, though, she said. 

When the pandemic began in early 2020, Hillman’s cohort missed a quarter in the facilities where they were doing their clinicals as the medical world scrambled to regain equilibrium. The following quarter, clinicals resumed, but Hillman and her classmates were not allowed to work with Covid patients for public health reasons. 

That meant that as a newly hired nurse, Hillman had to rely on the experienced nurses guiding her orientation for the confidence to take on the pandemic cases that make up the bulk of her current workload.

“I wish Covid would go away – it’s a super giant pain,” she said. “But at the same time, I’ve learned a lot because we’re doing things that you wouldn’t necessarily be doing outside a pandemic in normal conditions."

Jill Humble, executive director of nursing and allied health at the college, said the facilities where her students are doing clinicals now allow them to work with Covid patients. 

“It’ll prepare them even better,” she said. 

Second-year students said they saw the importance of taking care of Covid patients as preparing for the reality of their future careers.

“It’s critical for us to have to learn to take care of those patients because it’s not like Covid is just going to disappear,” said Rachel Talbot. “So it would be worse if we didn’t know how to take care of a Covid patient, because then we wouldn’t know what to do in the real world.”

Students must be vaccinated against Covid in order to work at the majority of the facilities where they may be placed for clinicals, a policy which has complicated the nursing program’s placement process. 

Humble said that a small minority of the second-year students were choosing to not get vaccinated and instead seek a medical or religious exemption, which puts their ability to complete some program requirements at risk. However, with the majority protected by both vaccines and personal protective equipment, students said that they weren’t overly worried about having to take care of Covid-positive patients. 

“I think our instructors are doing a good job providing the supplies that we need to maintain our safety,” said Vianey Maciel-Onate. 

Hillman said that the need to constantly switch out personal protective equipment between visits to Covid patients was tiring. But that wasn’t the hardest part of taking care of Covid patients, she said. 

“I’m always a little bit more anxious with my Covid patients because they can go downhill really fast,” she said. “They’re on continuous (oxygen) monitoring. I’m always peeking in their window. I’m always checking that to make sure they’re not dipping. When they start to go below 90% we have to start bumping up.”

Hillman said that Covid patients would commonly be laid on their bellies, or “proned,” in order to take the weight off of their lungs. However, that can be difficult for some patients who are overweight or have back issues. 

“The ones that can prone for a really long time tend to do a little better than the ones who won’t or can’t,” said Hillman.

Because there is not enough room in Nampa’s intensive care unit, Hillman said that sicker patients were being placed on her medical-surgical floor.  

“Some ICU patients, they know they can’t do anything else for, so they send them up on our floor to open up beds, and they pass away on our floor,” Hillman said. 

“The emotions (in treating Covid) are just heavy,” she continued. “Covid is so random with who it chooses, and the way it presents itself in different people is so different in who it chooses. That to me is kind of the hardest part.”

The second-year students said that while their work is difficult, the team spirit in their cohort is a great source of support. 

“If you’re not being challenged to the point where you question your career path, I don’t know what you’re doing,” said Talbot.

Other students said that despite the challenges they would face this year in their clinicals, they remained grateful for the opportunity to work in person. 

“I feel like there's a moment where I was thankful we could still go to clinical sites and stuff like that, because on the other side of the state they weren’t doing anything,” said Hannah Roberts. “I have friends in the (Oregon Health and Science University) program who still haven’t touched a patient,” said Carly Bowen. 

“Instead of having to do med-surg in the hospital, we’ve done thousands of vaccines between us for sure,” said Shad Allison.

“If anything, we really had to learn to be flexible,” said Kyle Spurling.

News tip? Contact reporter Liliana Frankel at [email protected] or 267-981-5577.

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