Exercises in empathy highlight School of Nursing's Immersion Week activities


Kelsey Thomas tries to walk down the steps of Waldron Hall wearing the Gerontology Age Suit with the help of her classmate and friend Alex Derenzis

With Immersion Week, students in RU's School of Nursing (SON) plunged into a new semester.

"Immersion Week is a powerful professional experience for all of our students," said SON Director Tony Ramsey.

SON upper level students (Levels 2-4) are getting back up to speed on what they have already learned and preparing themselves for what they will be learning, while the Level 1 students, first-semester juniors, are getting oriented to the program and expectations, explained Ramsey.

"For example, the Level 2 students confront the loss of a baby during delivery as part of their Obstetrics Nursing class this week," Ramsey explained.

Immersion Week is a contrast to the dip-the-toe-in-the-water way the semester starts for many students across campus.

"Immersion Week hits you in the face," said Cierra Falls, one of 45 Level 3 students, or first semester seniors, whose Immersion Week featured four days of sessions delving into the three courses they will take during the semester – Pediatric Nursing, Adult Care 2 Nursing and Gerontological Nursing. Falls and her Level 3 classmates also made trips to the regional hospitals at which they will do clinical practice to start training in their protocols.

Regina Masters said she felt like she was leaving non-nursing friends behind as she prepared for Monday morning's must-pass math test, the classroom work and the visits to her clinical settings.

"It is intense and super-scary," she said. "It seems we spent the week learning everything we can do wrong."


While wearing an outfit to simulate what the effects of old age are, Kelsey Thomas tries to count out her "medications" as her instructor and classmates watch. The task of putting daily medication in a pill box is much more of a challenge than most of the students ever anticipated.

The value of the pressure-filled environment is apparent to Misty Queen.

"There is a lot of anxiety, but that is good," she said. "We are learning accountability because we will be responsible for people's lives. It is rewarding to be able to provide hope along with medical and therapeutic care."

On Aug. 28, the upper level students spent eight hours immersed in Gerontological Nursing, led by Assistant Professors of Nursing Katie Katz and Sarah Gilbert. They experienced the challenges and problems of aging patients.

During the day, the students walked a few yards in their patients' shoes as they donned a GERontologic Test (GERT) suit to simulate the challenges of old age.

The future health care professionals also wore a hemiparesis suit that simulated the effects of a stroke. They worked through routine daily activities gauntleted with gloves that trembled and goggles that altered their vision to mimic severe diabetes. They also performed caregiving tasks like brushing one another's teeth.


Wearing the Gerontology Age Suit, another nursing student tries to fill out a doctor's office form only to discover just how tricky that can be as one ages.

Impaired, they walked up and down the stairs, signed their names, made change, as well as read, opened and administered personal medications. Making the activities difficult was blurred sight, paralysis, immobility, hearing loss and other simulated impairments.

While hampered with a weighted leg brace, sling and eye patch to simulate a stroke victim's impairments and walking with a cane, Rebecca Uren got trapped in a stairwell as classes changed. She huddled in the corner with her escort until the crowd thinned. She said she feared falling and being trampled by fellow students bustling by.

Teresa Williamson was frustrated by the weighted GERT suit that made each step an ordeal and Jim Cassidy harkened back to his time as an Army medic wearing body armor in the field.

"We trained constantly for that effort and could remove it, " he said. "This can happen instantly to our patients and they just have to get used to it and try to deal with it."

"I can't wait to get this stuff off," said Williamson as she staggered back to her third floor classroom in Waldron Hall from her trip to the first floor where she was tasked with identifying herself, signing her name and producing eight cents from a change purse. Upon her return, a pair of students helped her strip off the goggles, weighted boots and jacket, ear muffs, gloves and braces and suited up another nursing student to make a time jump from healthy 20-something to octogenarian. The physical differences they experienced opened their eyes and their hearts.

"This is how my patient feels," Queen said. "We are constantly learning the difference between empathy and sympathy. Patients don't want us to feel sorry for them, they want us to understand what they are going through."

The need for empathy is a constant in the training that the SON students undergo in and out of the classroom, Falls said.

"In every class and experience, empathy is emphasized," she said. "We will put that understanding of another's experience into our practice with our patients."

Katz said RU is distinctive with its devotion of a course specifically to gerontological nursing. Of the nursing programs in the United States accredited by the American Association of Colleges of Nursing, she said, RU is one of a select 25 percent to focus part of its curriculum on preparing nurses to care for a rapidly aging population and their attendant health challenges.

Gilbert said the GERT suit, the result of a recent gift to the SON by its alumni, is a teaching tool that provides a unique and valuable experience.

"It gives us the ability to enable our students to find out what it is like to be older and impaired. The experience will be a powerful background for the coursework. The students will now know at a deep level the challenges that their patients and their caregivers deal with," she said.

The frenetic pace of the semester does not stop for the seniors with the end of Immersion Week.

They will don scrubs this week for more intensive nursing practice, or "front-loading" at the Clinical Simulation Center at the RU Corporate Park in preparation for their clinical experiences. They will engage their knowledge, critical thinking abilities and collaboration skills in simulated health care scenarios, created by the Center's nursing faculty and featuring mannequins that speak to provide data upon which they will act. The students then assess the results of their decisions, actions and treatment in consultation with faculty during post-event video assessment sessions.

Sep 2, 2014