SHEPHERDSTOWN — The COVID-19 pandemic has shone a spotlight on healthcare practitioners. Programs such as Shepherd University’s School of Nursing play a big role in preparing those practitioners for the job of taking care of patients suffering from all kinds of health issues.
“Our nurses and nurse practitioners are on the frontline of giving care during this epidemic of opioid abuse and the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Dr. Sharon Mailey, dean, College of Nursing, Education, and Health Sciences, and chair, School of Nursing.
For the 2020-21 school year, there are 31 Doctor of Nursing Practice (D.N.P.) students, 137 Bachelor of Science in Nursing (B.S.N.) students, and 205 pre-nursing students, making nursing one of the largest degree program on campus.
A key component of earning a D.N.P. or B.S.N. is gaining experience in one of the healthcare facilities located throughout the region. Undergraduate students must fulfill 610 clinical direct patient care hours to sit for the National Council State Boards licensure exam to become RNs. Graduate students perform 1,080 clinical hours. Mailey said the School of Nursing has 60-70 affiliation agreement with facilities where D.N.P. and B.S.N. students can complete their clinical hours.
“At the graduate level, in order to be certified as a nurse practitioner, you must have over 600 clinical hours that are one-on-one with a preceptor provider,” Mailey said. “These cannot be simulated; they must be direct patient care encounter hours. Our students work with physicians and nurse practitioners in the region to gather the essential clinical knowledge they need as they begin their practice.”
The two largest facilities the School of Nursing works with are Winchester Medical Center in Winchester, Virginia, and Mertius Health in Hagerstown, Maryland. Both are in the American Nursing Credentialing Center Magnet Recognition Program®
“It’s foundational for the practice of nursing that we have those close affiliations, and we are blessed to be able to work with two magnet hospitals that embrace us,” Mailey said.
“Shepherd University is extremely proud of the exceptional School of Nursing — its stellar reputation, compassionate outreach, distinguished faculty, and dedicated students,” said Dr. Mary J.C. Hendrix, Shepherd president. “The ability to partner with local area hospital systems is particularly rewarding — the benefits are reciprocal in terms of the noteworthy experience for students and patients.”
Clinical hours for both undergraduate and graduate students include rotations in the whole array of services offered in primary care sites and an acute care hospital, such as gerontology, primary care, adult care, women’s health, pediatrics, mental health, emergency care, intensive care, and medical surgical care.
“Students have a well-rounded experience when they graduate from Shepherd,” Mailey said.
“Clinical has been a vital component of my nursing education, professional development, and critical thinking,” said Maria Acevedo-Cabrera, a B.S.N. major from Shepherdstown, who worked in an extern summer program at Winchester Medical Center. “It allows me to have a better understanding of what is being taught to me in the classroom. It gives me the opportunity to have a little taste of what nursing is all about.”
Acevedo-Cabrera said the clinical experience she gained at Winchester Medical Center has helped her grow as a nurse, and she has learned an immense amount of information that is critical to patient-centered care. Jacob Stout, a B.S.N. major from Falling Waters, did a clinical rotation at Brook Lane Health Services in Hagerstown, Maryland, working with adolescents who are struggling with mental illness.
“This clinical experience has allowed me to take a step outside of the textbook and classroom discussions and step into the actual environment in which a psychiatric registered nurse would work,” Stout said. “Having a chance to apply your newly learned skills within a real-world clinical setting is a great way to solidify your skillset, gain invaluable experiences, and immerse yourself into the culture of nursing. Working to help and interact with patients struggling with mental illness has been nothing short of memorable and rewarding.”
Payton Barr, a B.S.N. major from Franklin in his final semester of the nursing program, also worked as a summer extern at Winchester Medical Center, producing a capstone project on the Post Anesthesia Care Unit.
“The experience has been very fulfilling,” Barr said. “I learn something new every day and will be able to perform the duties of a nurse after I graduate. Without my capstone experience, I would imagine the transition from student to nurse would be very difficult.”
D.N.P. student Kristi Ashton’s clinical hours consist of seeing patients at the Tri-State Community Health Center in Berkeley Springs, treating them for everything from strep throat to muscle spasms, removing ingrown toenails, and giving immunizations. Ashton, of Martinsburg, envisions a career in public health once she earns her advanced practice degree.
“The clinical is a tremendously valuable experience,” Ashton said. “I’ve met people of all demographics with a variety of complex medical problems and that has been a good exposure medically. I would love to work at Tri-State or Shenandoah Community Health. I just know I can make a real difference in the lives of the patients who go there.”
During clinicals, nursing students are assigned to non-COVID-19 units and efforts are taken to make sure they are not directly caring for COVID patients. Personal protective equipment such as masks, goggles, face shields, and N95 masks are issued to students when they go to clinicals. Mailey said graduate students, who are working with primary care patients, may encounter COVID patients with symptoms due to the nature of their practice site.
“Our D.N.P. students are all registered nurses and all of them are in the work environment, so they are among the heroes,” Mailey said. “They’re on the front lines taking care of patients in those environments.”
COVID-19 is not the first health crisis Shepherd nursing students have faced as they’ve worked toward their degrees. Mailey points out the learning experiences offered in the School of Nursing prepares students to go into any environment, and in the past, they’ve had to deal with other diseases such as Ebola and MRSA that require training with personal protective equipment. She calls Shepherd’s nursing program an essential pipeline to healthcare in the region, whether there’s a pandemic or not.
“We are a feeder school to all the hospitals in the region and there’s a shortage of primary care providers, so our nurses and advance practice providers are essential for the needs of the most vulnerable population in the area,” Mailey said. “The healthcare indices of obesity, diabetes, COPD and opioid abuse are also significant and having this program helps address some of the needs of the population. We’re just thrilled we can be supportive of the health agencies and the population, and we’re very proud of the individuals who have graduated.”
In addition to gaining experience in medical facilities, Shepherd nursing students work in conjunction with the West Virginia Attorney General’s office in the local school system to deliver a message to children about the adverse effects of opioids and the hazards of vaping, and they have worked with the local health department with needle exchange programs and conducting the annual Point in Time homeless count. They also helped with the mandatory COVID-19 testing for 2,500 Shepherd students and employees that was conducted at the beginning of the school year in August.