Story by Lana Sweeten-Shults
Photos by Brandon Sullivan
GCU News Bureau
SUN CITY WEST, Arizona − “Hi! How are you today? Are you here for your first or second dose?” chirped a smiling McKenna Thompsen after approaching a drive-through patient who just received his second dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.
The third-level Grand Canyon University nursing student, donning her purple GCU scrubs, face mask and face shield, chatted for a few minutes as she monitored patients in the parking lot-turned-observation area of Banner Health Center’s COVID-19 vaccination site in Sun City West.
Thompsen was one of almost 20 GCU nursing students on Thursday morning scattered among bright orange traffic cones and multiple lanes of vehicles. Their assignment: to make sure newly vaccinated patients didn’t have an adverse reaction to the drug.
Manning the Point of Dispensing site, or POD, was incorporated into their clinical rotations with Banner Health. Many of the students are assigned to the Banner Del E. Webb Medical Center adjacent to the vaccine site, others are completing their clinicals at Banner Boswell Medical Center in Sun City.
Tracy Montgomery, Emergency Manager for the nearby City of Surprise and the site’s assistant POD manager, said most of the reactions to the drug have been because of anxiety.
“That’s one of the reasons we have students out here talking to them (the patients): to take their minds off things,” Montgomery said.
What the nursing faculty in the College of Nursing and Health Care Professions couldn’t take their minds off of, ever since hospitals last spring began closing their doors to all but essential personnel, was how to get their students back where they needed to be – in those very hospitals and other health care facilities.
The Banner system, and most other health care systems in Arizona, paused clinical rotations in March, during those initial days of the COVID-19 shutdowns.
College faculty turned to virtual clinical simulations to fill the gap. Then in the summer, they asked their students to take half the coursework they normally would and finish up the remaining half of clinical-based courses in the fall. The hope was that hospitals would open their doors by then to students.
And they did, though in a limited capacity.
That meant not every student that needed it would get a clinical rotation, and that wasn’t something college Dean Dr. Lisa Smith and Prelicensure Assistant Dean Heather Ziemianski could just sit back and accept so lightly.
Smith reached out to the college’s health care partners, Banner among them: “’Please, let us return,’” she told them. “We’re prepared. We’ll do whatever it takes."
“We had 30 different health care partners, and I contacted every single one of them and just kept pushing my request, and it has paid off,” Smith said.
Although clinicals aren’t at 100%, the outlook is the best it has been for the University’s nursing students since the pandemic began.
Jackie Hunter, Banner Health’s Senior Director of Diversity/Inclusion and Talent Pipeline for Banner, said for the spring, 311 GCU nursing students are covering 537 clinical rotations at various Banner sites. And students, including nursing students, along with GCU staff and employees covered 257 shifts at Banner COVID vaccination PODs during the winter break.
We’ve had a partnership with GCU for quite some time,” Hunter said, adding how it was important to Banner Health to continue its educational support of nursing students, even during the pandemic. “We understand the impact COVID-19 has had on their educational journey. We wanted to support our nursing students and provide a safe clinical experience upon their return to our facilities throughout the valley. They are our future -- and our pipeline.”
As the nationwide nursing shortage continues, moving nursing students through that pipeline and into hospitals is crucial. Clinical rotations play a big part in getting nurses trained and working.
The training students received at the Banner northwest POD location was something that GCU nursing student Wyatt Lucchetti readily connected with his classroom coursework. At the Banner site, he spent his morning simply talking to patients and keeping them calm.
“Something we’re taught from Level 1 is therapeutic communication,” he said. “We’re taught what to say and what not to say. We’re taught certain phrases.”
The California-turned-Arizona resident has completed two clinicals and is appreciative of the extra effort college leaders have made in working with their health care partners to get students back into their real-world classrooms.
“I truly have loved my clinicals,” said Lucchetti, who envied how nurses got to use the cadaver lab and so switched his major from engineering to nursing. “It (clinical rotations) is the first time I was ever in a hospital. I get to do assessments, push meds … just seeing (in person) what we’ve been learning (in the classroom) has been really cool.”
Thompsen, who is following in the footsteps of her nurse mom, said she didn’t have a lot of experience interacting with patients, or practicing those therapeutic communication skills Lucchetti spoke of, until her time at the Banner northwest vaccination site.
“Sometimes people talk to you for 15 minutes. It doesn’t happen every time, but it’s really nice,” said Thompsen, who is working at a cardiac step-down unit in her current clinical rotation.
“I get to help nurses and push meds, and I get to do nurse things,” she said with a smile.
Nicole Salcido-Lugo, a GCU nursing student from Buckeye, Arizona, was able to land two clinical rotations this semester – a four-week-long rotation in critical care and a three-week-long assignment in obstetrics.
Her rotation in obstetrics made a big impression on her, and it’s where she may want to work after she moves on from GCU. It has been her favorite clinical rotation so far “after experiencing it and being in a room with a mom delivering.
“It’s just the OB experience,” she said as she returned to her work and was reminded of the health concern − COVID − that has occupied everyone’s mind, particularly those in the health care profession.
Salcido-Lugo wanted to be a nurse after seeing how well they treated her grandmother when she was in the hospital. She wanted to be that same kind of support for someone else.
Although the coronavirus delayed her and other students in her nursing cohort by one semester, it hasn’t stopped them from returning to the hospital for their clinicals – or from wanting to be a nurse.
Seeing the nursing shortage firsthand, COVID “just reinforced why I wanted to become a nurse,” Thompsen said.
Salcido-Lugo agreed: “I think it has encouraged me more. I want to be a nurse now more than ever.”
GCU senior writer Lana Sweeten-Shults can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-7901.