Students' heart for serving earns them stethoscopes

When Dignity Health contacted GCU in mid-January about needing volunteers the next day for Maricopa County's southeast COVID-19 Point of Dispensing site at Chandler-Gilbert Community College, 31 nursing students immediately signed up.

By Lana Sweeten-Shults
GCU News Bureau

Members of the Dignity Health staff were so impressed with the students, they hand-delivered high-quality Littmann Classic III stethoscopes to campus for each student.

The past few months have been a blur for Level 3 Grand Canyon University nursing student Rebekah Sicairos. Like other busy nursing students, she delved into her classes, popped into the campus’ immersive simulation lab to sharpen her skills in simulated exercises, then dived deep into her clinical rotations.

But one memory that won’t be a blur: administering the life-saving COVID-19 vaccine.

She was one of more than two dozen Level 3 and Level 4 nursing students in the College of Nursing and Health Care Professions (CONHCP) who stepped up to volunteer at Maricopa County's southeast vaccination site at Chandler-Gilbert Community College, which Dignity Health manages.

It was in mid-January when the college’s Assistant Dean, Heather Ziemianski, got a call late one evening from Michelle Gilman, Director at Dignity Health and the college’s contact to St. Joseph’s Hospital & Medical Center. Gilman asked whether GCU students could help at the Dignity Health Point of Dispensing site the next day.

"It was a last-minute need with less than 24 hours' notice, and I just put a call out," said Gilman, a GCU Alumni Hall of Famer who was one of 15 students in GCU's (then Grand Canyon College's) first nursing class in 1984, when the college was called the Samaritan College of Nursing. 

Gilman needed 40 volunteers and got 31 from GCU.  “Which was great, given the short notice,” Ziemianski said.

The Level 3 and Level 4 students administered vaccines, served as runners, assessed patients and assisted in patient education.

Those students didn’t have to be asked twice to volunteer.

They were all in.

A few days later, Dr. Lisa Smith, the CONHCP Dean, received a call. The hospital was so impressed with the students and so grateful for their help.

“We want to do something nice for them,” Gilman said.

That something nice was Littmann Classic III stethoscopes hand-delivered to the college, one for each student who volunteered.

“This is a nicer stethoscope than I had when I was in nursing school,” Ziemianski said.

She added, “All the students so far have been super excited, super gracious. They thought this was a really nice gesture. They weren’t expecting it.”

GCU’s College of Nursing and Health Care Professions and St. Joseph’s Hospital & Medical Center, which is part of the Dignity Health health care system, have partnered for many years to educate the next generation of nurses. In 2005, Gilman helped open a satellite GCU campus at St. Joseph's that operated for a number of years.

"We've always had a relationship with GCU, and we hire their grads, always," Gilman said.

It’s a relationship that has grown even stronger during the pandemic.

“St. Joseph’s Hospital serves as one of the facilities that really embraces our students,” GCU nursing instructor Kelly Schaefer said. She was onsite with the student volunteers at the Dignity Health COVID vaccination site. “They have been pivotal in getting our students in-person encounters during the pandemic.”

A GCU nursing student volunteer takes on a four-hour shift at the site -- and received a dose of the vaccine.

Not only did students get the opportunity to administer vaccines, assess patients after they received the vaccine and help in patient education at the Dignity Health Point of Dispensing site, but the hospital is where many of GCU’s nursing students go for on-site training in clinical placements, group rotations and one-to-one preceptorships.

Ziemianski said this semester, 74 of GCU’s Level 4 nursing students are in a one-to-one preceptorship at St. Joseph’s. Those students work with a designated staff nurse at the hospital on a designated unit, completing 108 hours, usually in nine- to 12-hour shifts.

“This is just a more immersive experience for students to get hands-on (experience),” said Ziemianski, who added that the nursing students who volunteered at the Dignity Health vaccination location did receive credit for clinical time.

Nine students also are at St. Joseph’s Westgate Medical Center in Glendale, 15 at Chandler Regional Medical Center and six at Mercy Gilbert Medical Center.

“The students just jumped all over it" when Dignity Health needed help, Ziemianski said. "It was really great for us to give back.”

Schaefer said many of the students who volunteered were students she had instructed in a virtual clinical rotation the previous semester, when many hospitals and other health care facilities paused their in-person clinical rotations because of COVID protocols.

“To meet them in person and to be able to see them apply the skills they learned while participating in a historic public health operation was an incredible experience that I am thankful to have been a part of,” she said. “All the students performed with excellence, compassion and purpose. It was not at all surprising, but it was gratifying.”

Schaefer added how GCU’s nursing students “resolutely serve with joy.”

Students not only volunteered at the vaccination site, but many of them are in one-to-one preceptorships, group clinicals and clinical placements at St. Joseph's Hospital & Medical Center and other Dignity Health facilities.

Level 4 GCU nursing student Kimberly Ghering was more than ready to volunteer.

“I just felt like it was the right thing to do,” said Ghering, who, just three weeks after volunteering at the Dignity Health COVID vaccination location, was at GCU’s Point of Dispensing site recently administering vaccines. “It’s a pandemic and we’re called to serve and help the community when we can. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing. When else can I say I gave vaccines during a pandemic?”

Ghering, who will graduate this spring, said she has wanted to be a nurse ever since high school but never previously had the confidence to do it.

“It was always something that kept bugging me, so finally, when I moved to Arizona, I said, ‘You know what? I’m going to do it.’”

She added, “Anybody that has the opportunity to do something like this, if they feel comfortable to do it,  they just should do it just for the experience and to really see how people can come together and help public health.”

Sicairos, too, didn’t hesitate to help in the COVID fight when called.

The pandemic has taken so much – lives, jobs, health, economic stability. It also has disrupted life at GCU. For Sicairos and her fellow nursing students, when clinical rotations were paused and students went to virtual clinicals over the summer, they lost that hands-on, in-person learning that’s so essential to becoming a nurse.

“So the opportunity to participate in a worldwide initiative to reduce COVID and to get extra practice with things that were missing from clinical was a no-brainer for me,” she said.

“The part that impacted me the most about volunteering at that site was it’s a whole new part of history. These are unprecedented times. We’ve never gone through this before, so to be able to talk to people, hear how they were feeling and to just take part in this worldwide initiative to make it better and take care of people – it was amazing just hearing people’s stories and seeing people cry because they were so grateful to get the vaccine.”

Sicairos first wanted to become a nurse when she was 16 and was in the emergency room with a panic attack, though at the time she didn’t know what was happening.

“There was a nurse, and all she did was get me Gatorade, she got me crackers, asked my parents to leave the room and sat with me and talked with me. I remembered just leaving the hospital that day and just thinking, wow, I hope I can impact somebody the same way that this nurse impacted me.”

More nursing students thrilled with their surprise gift.

Just a year later, her mother passed away and Sicairos felt that her mom didn’t get adequate care – something she doesn’t want to happen to anyone else.

When she made the switch from her original major to nursing, she said it was the best decision she ever made.

“I’m so passionate about it. Taking care of people in their most vulnerable moment is a blessing that I could never take for granted. It reminds you of the frailty of life and how grateful we have to be for the life that we’re given,” she said, especially during a pandemic.

It was something she was reminded of at the Dignity Health vaccination site. And it's a blessing she can pass on to others as a nurse, stethoscope in hand.

GCU senior writer Lana Sweeten-Shults can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-7901.


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