Highlanders serving our communities: Radford University nursing students help with COVID vaccinations

Radford Unviersity nursing students at the vaccination clinic

While the COVID-19 global pandemic has been a challenge for many, seniors in the Radford University School of Nursing are using it as an opportunity to practice their skills, interact with patients and learn the importance of public health to communities across our region.

During their last semester, Radford nursing students take a community health nursing course taught by professors Erin Cruise, Ph.D., RN, and Louise Coats, FNP-C, M.S.N. The course normally provides students with the opportunity to spend several weeks working in community settings with nurse preceptors and completing health promotion projects. These settings have included working in schools, jails and free clinics, as well as with hospice providers, the Virginia Department of Health (VDH) and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP).

This spring, however, with pandemic precautions still in place, many of the nursing program’s partners are either closed to students or operating on limited schedules.

“The students did as much as they could, but the precautions limited opportunities and made it very difficult to find enough clinical hours to meet our requirements,” said Cruise.

A Highlander Alumnus Saves the Day
An alumnus of the nursing program soon came to the rescue. Cruise said that David Linkous ’80, B.S.N. ’83, an emergency planner for the New River District of the VDH who helps coordinate the disaster management training for the nursing program, knew about the challenges the students were facing. He was also working with the team coordinating the COVID vaccination clinics in the New River Health District, including Radford, Floyd, Giles, Montgomery and Pulaski counties. Linkous contacted the nursing program to see if there was interest in getting the students trained to administer vaccines.

“Several of us jumped through hoops to update a memorandum of agreement with the VDH,” Cruise recalled. “We were able to get it all completed in three hours on a Friday afternoon and got the go-ahead from the New River Health District medical director to check students off for the hands-on portion. It was just too great of an opportunity to pass up for our students.”

Though the nursing program was just kicking off the spring semester, all 48 students and the community health faculty worked tirelessly to complete the six-to-seven-hour online training. Then, Cruise and Coats led the students through skills training in the evenings and on weekends.

“Our students were able to start helping with vaccines in early February,” Cruise said. “It was all done with a lot of effort, but it was worth it.”  

Serving Our Communities through Vaccinations
When the students began working at the vaccination sites, they assisted with registration, gave vaccinations, entered patient data into the computer system and monitored patients who had their vaccines to make sure they didn’t have a reaction.

Nursing student Ella O’Keefe

Emeritus professor of nursing Maggie Bassett assisted with checking on students onsite and also took groups of students to help at the call center, where patients call for information and screening and to get their vaccines scheduled.

Cruise recalled that for several weeks, “we had students at the clinics every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday” in locations that included Blue Ridge Church and Radford University’s Dedmon Center in the New River Valley, the Rescue Mission in Roanoke and Martin’s Pharmacy in Dublin and Pulaski.

The chance to be part of such an important effort isn’t lost on the students participating, including Ella O’Keefe, who said the opportunity to participate in the vaccine clinics has been a blessing.

“I’ve had different roles at the clinics, from monitoring the recovery room to being a vaccinator and documenting the service for clients,” O’Keefe said. “Throughout every clinic I volunteered at, I’ve met so many amazing people.”

One of the locations where O’Keefe worked was the Roanoke Rescue Mission. She said that it was there that it really clicked how important these clinics are.

“It was the first clinic for this homeless population, and we collectively administered over 100 first-dose vaccines that afternoon,” she recalled. “I could not help but feel humbled by this experience, and to be part of their history was an honor in itself. The clients were so grateful for the opportunity.”

Fellow nursing student Christian Long also said that all vaccine clinics have been very positive experiences for him.

“The clinics have given me a chance to grow my skills not only as a nursing student but also as an individual,” Long said. “I’m happy that I have had these opportunities to interact with all different backgrounds and ages in the community and impact so many in such a positive way.”

Long, who has worked both in the vaccination clinics and the call centers, said that he has been impressed with how gracious the members of the community were.

“All of the people I met were extremely grateful to be getting vaccinated and receiving their call to schedule their appointment,” he said. “The interactions I’ve had were extremely positive, and I believe that all of the community members appreciated what we were doing for them.”

O’Keefe added that she has encountered hundreds of people during the clinics, and every person comes with a unique story. She recalled a couple who was immunocompromised finally leaving the house to receive the vaccine, as well a healthcare worker receiving her second dose so she could return to work with a little more security. She spoke with a teacher excited to get her vaccine so she could go back to in-person classes and a homeless individual who wouldn’t otherwise have access to this service.

“It has been positively overwhelming to work with all of the different client populations in these communities,” she said.

Learning through Hands-On Experience
Cruise said that the hands-on experiences the students gain through the vaccination clinics are not only invaluable to their nursing education but also unique in an extraordinary time.

Nursing student Meredith Lewis

“The clinics have given these students the chance to supplement what they have learned in the classroom in a way they may not have had otherwise,” Cruise said. “We’ve followed the development of the pandemic and learned about the effects that poverty and prejudice have on people’s access to healthcare. The clinics allow them to interact with a wide variety of people of all ages and backgrounds and to see the importance good healthcare can have on the quality of life.”

Cruise said the students can build on their previous training in these real-world experiences to become more competent with prioritizing care, organizing the work of public health, educating patients and working as part of a healthcare team.

“The vaccine clinics have been a great chance for us to take our clinical knowledge and apply it to working with real patients,” Long said. “We have been able to give back to communities across southwest Virginia, which has been amazing.”

O’Keefe said community health is a growing specialty in the realm of nursing, and she felt the pandemic offered a one-of-a-kind opportunity for her and her classmates to “get their feet wet.”

“I have encountered more people doing these vaccine clinics than I could have elsewhere,” O’Keefe said. “Not only has it greatly improved my vaccine administration skills, but it has also fine-tuned my patient-provider interactions.”

O’Keefe said being able to allow clients the time to feel heard and seen with a two- to five-minute interaction was daunting at first, but it was a challenge she was willing to pursue. She said taking the time to answer their questions was imperative for the people who came to the clinics and helped them feel at ease with their decisions to be vaccinated.

“What is great about these clinics is that everyone is so happy to be there,” O’Keefe said. “They are excited to be receiving these vaccines and truly being an active part of returning to some semblance of normal. It makes sitting for long hours worth every minute.”

A Part of History
Cruise said that one of the things that she and other nursing faculty have noticed is that the students are keenly aware that they are living through a very significant time in history, and their efforts are helping us overcome the health challenges we are facing.

Nursing student Carly Craddock

“They are very aware of the impact this pandemic has had on our world,” Cruise said. “These students have had to get used to Zoom classes and had their direct care clinical hours cut short last year due to the lockdown. They are living with a great deal of uncertainty, especially regarding their ability to complete their education and graduate on time. But, they also understand how the coronavirus works, how diseases are transmitted and how transmission is prevented. They know that the work they are doing in the clinics is making a difference, and they are proud to be part of that.”

Cruise said some of the students have commented that they look forward to telling their grandchildren how they helped slow a pandemic, and some have volunteered to help on their own time, not just because it’s required.

“That type of self-awareness and commitment to excellence and community service are what make Radford University’s nursing graduates stand out,” Cruise said. “They make us as faculty very proud to have had a small part in teaching them to be such wonderful nurses.”

Apr 6, 2021
Mark Lambert