The COVID-19 pandemic has been stressful on everyone, but health care workers may be affected more than anyone. Some nurses are burnt out and planning to leave the profession. Meanwhile, colleges are preparing new graduates to take their place — and deal with the pressures of the job.
Heather Hampson works at John A. Logan College in southern Illinois, helping to train the next generation of nurses.
While speaking in the empty nursing lab, where teaching dummies lay in gurneys next to IV stands and crash carts, Hampson said the pandemic brought a lot of attention to the profession — and that motivates students.
“Most people look at this, nurses and all health care providers, as heroes through this pandemic, so I think that it encourages them, and energizes them, and motivates them to want to select this career path,” Hampson said.
At the community college, instructors use labs and dummies to give students hands-on learning. The pandemic changed that, forcing students into online classes for months. Hampson said that actually helped working students who worried about being quarantined and missing classes.
“Many of them work in health care now. And so they would have high exposures,” she asid. “So the fact that we were able to offer our classes in that setting so that they didn't miss any school was a great way to alleviate some of that stress and help them be successful.”
Elena Novelli, a new graduate, was studying to become a registered nurse when the pandemic began. She was already working as a licensed practical nurse, which became emotionally difficult during the pandemic.
“It is very stressful, especially to watch residents die that have been in the facility for a long time, and you've grown a strong connection with,” Novelli said. “It has been mentally exhausting, and physically exhausting.”
Throughout the pandemic, instructors did their best to continue essential hands-on training. Instructor Erin McGuire said clinical work is essential for students.
“Hopefully they were able to see what acute care is like, in the moment, rather than maybe waiting until after they graduate before they see their first real patient,” she said.
Hampson said students also worked with local health departments.
“They gave over 30,000 immunizations in the last few weeks,” she said. “I feel like that helped spin it so that they felt more in control and had this positive effect on our community.”
McGuire said seeing what it's like to work as a nurse — including the stress of dealing with COVID — can help students choose the right path for them.
“I think when people saw the nurses who are out there on the front line, and how tired they are, and the struggles that they were having, you know, just doing their job in a pandemic, I think some of them at least took a hard look at it, and really had to do some self-reflection and see is this really what I want to do?” McGuire said.
Even some practicing nurses are involved in that reflection. A survey conducted last December found nearly one in four nurses were planning to leave bedside care or the profession.
Learning to handle pressures of the job is a part of the nursing education at Logan. Instructor Kristin Yosanovich said self care is key.
“It is very, very important that as a nurse, you cannot care for others if you cannot care for yourself,” Yosanovich said. “So putting yourself first at some times, having positive coping mechanisms and outlets is number one in priority to giving care to others.”
Hampson encourages students to eat well, exercise and find time for activities like yoga or reading.
For Novelli, the pandemic resulted in new habits to shake off the stress of work and school.
“So that took me a while to get a hang of but actually at the beginning of the COVID I picked up running,” she said. “And then I got into the gym a lot just having healthy habits and something I could go and take my anger and frustration out, the gym was really the place.”
Despite the pandemic, staff said none of the students quit the program — and they've seen even more people consider enrolling.
Student Andrew Bily said quitting wasn't an option for him.
“Mentally, the biggest thing is, it is scary. If you have the right amount of fear, it gives you the drive to do the best you can,” he said. “Quitting is a very easy thing, but I think I used it to motivate me to just continue and finish and it helped me become better than I ever would have been.”
This story was produced by WFYI’s Side Effects Public Media, a regional news collaborative covering public health.