WMU nursing program students, faculty are pandemic prepared

Contact: Joy Brown

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KALAMAZOO, Mich.—If Western Michigan University nursing student Aubrey Reynolds-Erspamer is given the opportunity to enter the workforce early to become a frontline COVID-19 health care fighter, she says she’s taking it. 

“One hundred percent, I will join to help,” says Reynolds-Erspamer, adding that “2020 is the year of the nurse, and I chose this profession specifically to help others. I am ready to do my part in any way I can.”

Senior Rebecca Stierley has accepted a nurse intern position at a Kalamazoo-area hospital.

A nursing student stands outside with her stethoscope around her neck.

Aubrey Reynolds-Erspamer, nursing student at Western Michigan University

“It is heartbreaking to see what is happening in the world,” says WMU student and U.S. Army Reserve Officer Training Corps member Katie Sypniewski, who intends to serve as an Army nurse after she graduates. “As a soon-to-be nurse, it is hard to watch what is going on...”

“The unpredictability and the unknown are the scariest parts,” says Stierley.

Reynolds-Erspamer, Sypniewksi and Stierley all emphasize they’re aware of the pandemic-related risks, but their passion for nursing and preparation they’re receiving through WMU are equipping them with the mindset and skills to perform this vital job.

As the pandemic progresses, Reynolds-Erspamer, Sypniewski, Stierley, their classmates and WMU’s Bronson School of Nursing faculty and staff are facing the challenges head-on. They realize they are and will be key players in the nation’s health care response to the virus.

Program Pivot

Bronson School of Nursing, which offers Bachelor of Science and Master of Science degrees in nursing, shifted entirely to distance education delivery this semester like every other University program, but is forging ahead within the College of Health and Human Services to prepare students for work during one of the most challenging times in health care. 

According to school's director, Dr. Mary Lagerwey, hands-on learning via labs and clinicals has given way to online lessons with alternative assignments; the Michigan Board of Nursing recently eased licensing and regulations to accommodate those necessary adjustments, she says. Those receiving degrees can practice as a “graduate nurse” prior to taking the National Council Licensure Examination and receiving their Registered Nurse license, which will allow them serve patients in a limited capacity in the interim.

“This allows our graduating students to get a job and progress to the next level” without a pandemic-related delay, Lagerwey says. 

Videos created by students and faculty have become essential learning tools, particularly for grasping fundamentals such as blood pressure checks, patient assessments and prioritization of care. Debriefings with students are essential.

Reynolds-Erspamer says she has been reading more in-depth from textbooks. PowerPoint presentations with voiceovers have been beneficial, and she has been taking online practice tests “to keep my brain in school mode,” too.

A sign outside Bronson Methodist Hospital reads "Thank you! #Bronson Heroes."

“I never expected to be in nursing school online, and it isn’t ideal, but my professors and the Bronson School of Nursing have been so supportive throughout this uncertain time,” Sypniewski says. “They really care for us and want us to succeed, which makes it a little bit easier.”

Sypniewski, from Ottawa, Illinois, was disappointed when her clinicals were cut short this spring; she was enrolled in a 12-hour clinical rotation at Bronson Methodist Hospital’s Neuro Critical Care Unit. But she says she learned from and was inspired by the nurses’ exemplary work. 

“Although I was unable to finish my semester with them, the [Bronson] nurses on this unit really showed me what it meant to be a nurse. They went above and beyond to care for their patients and be there for them every step of the way. Being in critical care, they demonstrated selfless service and positivity every day. The nurses on this unit inspired me to want to work in critical care after I graduate,” Sypniewski says.

Since switching to distance learning, professors “have simulated clinicals well and put in a lot of work to make sure our assignments are real as they can be,” says Sypniewski.

Summer nursing courses, which primarily serve the master’s program, will continue to be offered online as they traditionally have been, Lagerwey says.

If traditional classes can resume in the fall, Lagerwey says faculty will provide more lab work and other hands-on learning to make sure students have acquired the necessary skills with distance education.

“Our faculty and staff have both just been amazing and have gone the extra mile” to teach students, Lagerwey points out, and have done the same to assist each other. Dr. Ron Cisler, dean of the College of Health and Human Services, has a virtual faculty and staff check-in two days each week, and those with online teaching experience have stepped up to assist those seeking more experience, she says.

Lagerwey says the nursing program has been approached by local agencies eager to recruit volunteers to help treat COVID-19 patients, which means undergraduates, recent graduates and seasoned faculty may be courted. Faculty members are committed to teaching through spring semester, she says. 

“But some have volunteered part time, and when we wrap up the semester, I think many of the faculty and students will be volunteering to help,” says Lagerwey.

Lagerwey pointed out the nursing program is viewing the pandemic, though concerning for many reasons, also is a learning experience imparting valuable lessons about patient care and public health issues.

‘Doing the Right Thing’

Reynolds-Erspamer, who is from Marquette in the Upper Peninsula, knows the risks when it comes to COVID-19. 

“Of course, there is a chance that working in health care right now could expose me to the COVID-19 virus, but it’s the chance we take to help others that are suffering,” Reynolds-Erspamer says. “I definitely try to be extra safe by washing my hands more frequently and not touching my face, but my main goal is helping others while I can.” 

nursing student wearing stethoscope

Rebecca Stierley, nursing student at Western Michigan University

This semester, even amid distance learning, Reynolds-Erspamer has been working at Bronson Methodist Hospital as a patient safety assistant.

“I thrive on human connection on a day-to-day basis, so personally, this pandemic is hitting me really hard. My family is about seven hours away, and I am choosing to stay in Kalamazoo to work at the hospital to help. It can get lonely, but I feel like I am doing the right thing,” she explains.

Stierley says that, “some may think I am crazy for running into the fire, so to speak, while everyone else is running away, but my family knows caring for people is my passion and that is what I need to do.”

Reynolds-Erspamer’s reasons for wanting to enter the nursing profession are simple.

“To me, becoming a nurse means I get the joy of going to work every day and get the chance to make someone’s days a little better. Whether that means getting to hold someone’s hand in the tough times, keeping a patient stable, smiling as a patient recovers or taking time to listen to a worried family member, I have learned it can be the little things that make the biggest impact,” Reynolds-Erspamer says. 

a nursing student standing on a balcony

Katie Sypniewski, nursing student at Western Michigan University

Sypniewski expressed similar thoughts about the career field.

“Nursing is amazing. The career has always interested me since I was a little kid. It is such a selfless job that takes a special person. The people in this career have big hearts,” Sypniewski explains. “I want to become a nurse to be a part of something bigger than myself. I am very committed to being there to care and support someone when they are most vulnerable. I want to be that nurse who makes a difference in someone’s life by treating them like a human being when they need love and support in their toughest moments.”

“I want to make a difference, and if I can positively impact just one person in this world, I have done that. So, getting the opportunity to impact the lives of others on a daily basis is the most rewarding thing I could ever dream of,” says Stierley, a Jackson native.

All three students said they’ve already learned a great deal personally and professionally from the pandemic.

Communicating and staying connected with others are essential, Sypniewski has discovered. 

“My family does a Zoom call every Sunday with about 25 of us. Technology is a blessing right now,” Sypniewski says.

She is also taking advantage of her reorganized schedule.

“I am learning that maybe this time is a moment for the world to slow down and refresh on the simple things in life. I know personally, I am lucky enough to be able to focus on my health more than ever,” Sypniewski says.

“The biggest takeaway from what has been happening is it is critical to be adaptable,” says Reynolds-Erspamer. Change comes whether you are ready or not, but how you carry yourself through it is what matters. Control the things you can control and don’t get too caught up in the things you can’t.”

Stierley agrees, saying that “nursing is a constantly evolving profession, and the ability to adapt to change is essential to succeed.”

“Personally, I have a strong faith to lean on and I’m proud of that,” Reynolds-Erspamer says. “I am also so proud to be going into nursing and potentially having the chance to help out sooner than expected when the world needs us nurses most.”

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