Commitment and innovation guide nursing students, faculty in pandemic

By Brian Koonz, MS '20 August 24, 2022

Melissa Guzman smiles proudly in her scrubs outside of Yale New Have Children's Hospital

Over the past several months, the collaboration and courage of Quinnipiac’s School of Nursing during the COVID-19 pandemic has earned national attention among professional networks and peer-reviewed journals, including a recent submission to the Journal of Nursing Administration.

In the spring of 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic swept across the world with uncertainty and often dire consequences, the School of Nursing found itself at an alarming crossroads. While the need for skilled and compassionate nurses was never greater, access to hands-on clinical training for nursing students suddenly vanished.

Undaunted, School of Nursing faculty collaborated with nursing leaders across Connecticut to develop digital clinicals, including virtual labs and online simulations. The School of Nursing also invested in cutting-edge software to help students continue their education in thoughtful, meaningful ways.

“The School of Nursing was amazing during that time, just how everyone helped us feel more confident and flexible in our abilities,” said Melissa Guzman ’21, now a registered nurse who works in the neonatal ICU at Yale New Haven Children’s Hospital.

“They kept finding new ways for us to learn, whether it was online simulations or making things from supplies we had at home,” Guzman said. “You had to think and figure things out. It really helped to shape me into the nurse I am today.”

But as the pandemic wore on, students also needed hands-on experience to satisfy the clinical requirements for their BSN degrees and to qualify for the state’s NCLEX licensure exam.

Once more, the School of Nursing started thinking about an ambitious, yet safe strategy to ensure students received the very best training. As it turned out, Beth Beckman, chief nursing executive at the Yale New Haven Health System, was thinking the same thing.

Beckman called Dean Lisa O’Connor, and they discussed a collaborative, statewide immersion program that would start during the January term with QU and other state nursing schools. The Connecticut Hospital Association also participated in these conversations.

Working with the Yale New Haven Health System, Quinnipiac students learned from RN preceptors and faculty at six facilities across Connecticut, including Bridgeport Hospital, Greenwich Hospital and Lawrence + Memorial Hospital in New London.

“Quinnipiac was a major player in all this,” Beckman said. “All of our academic colleagues were talking about how we could figure this out. So together, we stood up and decided we were going to teach these students how to be COVID nurses. We simply couldn't avoid the inevitable. You can't graduate in May and have never touched a COVID patient.” 

It was an accessible progression of healthcare education — swabbing nasal passages for COVID tests, administering vaccines, and finally, treating patients with dignity, humanity and the highest level of holistic care in the ICU, emergency department and medical/surgical units.

These decisive outcomes have been widely chronicled in articles across the nursing profession:

  • “Educating Nursing Students Through the Pandemic: The Essentials of Collaboration” published by SAGE Open Nursing
  • “How the Practice/Academic Partnership Model Helped One State During COVID-19” published by the National Council of State Boards of Nursing
  • “Reshaping the Future: An Innovative Academic-Practice Collaboration for COVID-19 Vaccinations and Testing” published by Nursing Administration Quarterly

An additional article, “Bridge to Professional Practice: An Innovative Practice/Academic Partnership during a Global Pandemic,” has been submitted for publication to The Journal of Nursing Administration.

“What came out of this was really the resilience of the students,” said Debra Fisher, the former assistant dean of student services and a part-time faculty member. “They took care of COVID-positive patients assigned to a COVID unit, but they also had clinical faculty to help guide them. It was imperative that students had these experiences because we owed that to them. We needed to prepare them for the world they were entering.”

For Jillian Isolano ’21, now a registered nurse at Cohen Children’s Medical Center in Queens, New York, the real-world experience in real-time made all the difference.

“We were all so eager to help and contribute however we could,” Isolano said. “It wasn’t just me, it was everyone — all of my classmates. We knew there was a pandemic going on, but we were ready to do our jobs. We were prepared. This is why we got into nursing.”

The students were courageous, measured and deliberate. But most of all, they were professional and poised, serving with distinction at a time when uncertainty was dispensed in relentless doses.

“The professors always taught us that a person is more than their chart or their diagnosis or their symptoms,” Guzman said. “You have to treat the mind, body and soul of a person. You have to treat the whole person.” 

The same could be said for treating future nurses.

Lisa Rebeschi, associate dean of the School of Nursing and a professor of nursing, is proud of the way Quinnipiac students were so committed during the pandemic — to their craft, to their community, and, most of all, to their patients.

“This was a once-in-a-career learning opportunity,” Rebeschi said. “Hopefully, they’ll never have to go through something like that again. But for students to be involved on the frontlines during such a historical time — and be able to impact public health in a such positive way — that’s something they’ll take with them their entire careers.”

For Gillian Chung ’22, who will start working in the intensive care unit at The Hospital of Central Connecticut in September, the COVID pandemic also affected her nursing education. But like her classmates, professors and RN preceptors, she persisted.

“Quinnipiac’s School of Nursing taught me to be confident in my skills, be a leader and facilitate change with not only my patients, but within the community surrounding it,” Chung said.

Chung’s career readiness also benefited from working in the Hartford HealthCare system for three summers as a student.

“When I did the operating room internship at Hartford HealthCare, there were three or four other Quinnipiac students with me, so it already felt comfortable,” Chung said. “Being able to work at a hospital even before I started my clinicals helped prepare me for what was next.”

Earlier this year, Quinnipiac and Hartford HealthCare announced a strategic partnership to build the healthcare workforce of tomorrow. This groundbreaking commitment will benefit Quinnipiac students and alumni, including Chung, for years to come.

"I’m excited to start my next chapter in the nursing profession,” Chung said. “I believe this partnership is mutually beneficial between the Quinnipiac community and the future of Hartford HealthCare, and will provide students like me with valuable, long-term experiences."

The expanded collaboration with Hartford HealthCare is one of many vibrant relationships with healthcare organizations throughout the state that continue to offer Quinnipiac students essential hands-on training and learning experiences.

Even during a pandemic.

MaryEllen Kosturko, senior vice president, patient care operations, and the chief nursing officer at Bridgeport Hospital, worked closely with Beckman, Quinnipiac and the other nursing schools during the height of the COVID pandemic.

“I think something that nursing leaders do differently — maybe even better than some other professions — is letting their altruistic side come through,” Kosturko said. “The question then becomes, ‘How does this help our patients?’ Suddenly, it’s not about one hospital or even one university. Instead, it’s about everyone coming together to help the patients. They’re at the center of everything we do as nurses.

“In this case, after everything that happened during the pandemic, it was critical to ensure that these students had the training and the experiences they needed,” Kosturko said. “They’re our future nurses and we can’t function without them. We need them in the workforce.”

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