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Greenville Business Magazine

Nursing students get their shot

By Liv Osby

In a vast beige space where blankets and greeting cards and smartphone cases were once on sale, Pawel Podedworny dons a fresh pair of surgical gloves, rubs the arm of a patient with an alcohol swab and painlessly inserts a needle carrying the Pfizer coronavirus vaccine.

The space - the old Kmart store off Faris Road in Greenville - has been transformed into a Prisma Health vaccination clinic, and nursing students like Podedworny are playing a critical role.

Faced with a lingering shortage of nurses and the need to vaccinate thousands of people each day during a deadly pandemic, health systems have tapped nursing students to help fill the breach.

Among others, Prisma has partnered with Clemson University’s School of Nursing in the Upstate and with the University of South Carolina College of Nursing in the Midlands, for example.

College of Nursing students from the Medical University of South Carolina have been helping with Covid testing, and MUSC has also partnered with a number of nursing schools to help with testing and administering vaccine, including ECPI students who have been giving vaccinations at MUSC’s East Campus Clinic, said Chris Hairfield, manager of the Transitions in Nursing Practice Program.

Meanwhile, the state Department of Health and Environmental Control has partnered with the Edward Via College of Osteopathic Medicine in Spartanburg to open a clinic targeting underserved communities to provide vaccinations by VCOM students, who are overseen by faculty, said spokeswoman Lily Knights. 

This approach has been a great partnership between hospitals and their academic partners, said Lara Hewitt, spokeswoman for the South Carolina Hospital Association.

“Obviously, the hospitals needed additional staffing support to do large scale community vaccination events,” she told Greenville Business Magazine. “But nursing students got to be a part of helping bring resources and solutions to a global pandemic.”

Many students saw their education disrupted because of the pandemic, she said, as nursing programs were forced to offer more clinical experiences via simulation instead of in-person.

“Allowing students the opportunity to be part of the vaccination process has proved to be a win-win because it gives nursing students the real-world experience of patient care, interacting with patients, the patient registration process, etc.,” she said.

Some 65 nursing students from Tri-County Technical College in Pendleton are helping with AnMed Health’s vaccination efforts at the Anderson Civic Center on Fridays and Saturdays, Tri-County spokeswoman Karen Potter said.

“Each student will do a four-hour shift and these hours will count toward their (clinical hours), which has to be completed before they graduate in May,” she said. “Their duties may include assisting with paperwork, asking screening questions, administering the injection - when an RN is present to supervise - and observing for allergic reaction.”

AnMed spokeswoman Lizz Walker said the hospital is happy to have the students’ help. 

“They have done a wonderful job,” she said.

UofSC nursing students recently began to help with vaccinations at Student Health Services, said spokeswoman Jan Johnson. And some volunteered at a Prisma clinic set up at Gamecock Park in Columbia in January, which provided 5,780 vaccinations in a week, according to the school.

A year ago when the pandemic hit, all instruction migrated online, and students were unable to do clinical rotations in hospitals, said Lindsay Grainger, an instructor at the UofSC Upstate Mary Black School of Nursing.

And while clinicals were able to resume in the fall, she said it’s been an ongoing challenge to find opportunities because Covid has limited the number of hospital spots, which has been disheartening for students. The vaccine clinic has been a blessing, she said.

“So much has been hampered in terms of education for these nursing students because a lot of their clinicals were completely canceled and others severely truncated,” she said. “It’s been wonderful for their training … to have this experience of in-person interaction.”

By mid-March, Grainger said, she had taken about 25 students to the Kmart on different occasions and one day they administered about 300 vaccines. She plans to continue because as much as it helps the community, it’s great for the students’ spirits.

“Some say they can do vaccines with their eyes closed now,” she said with a chuckle. “It’s meant good feelings and a lot of positivity after a year of angst and frustration.”

It’s been a challenging year for students and faculty alike, said Dr. Ann Wetsel, associate director for academic programs and a professor at Clemson.

“We started out … delivering the program traditionally as we always have. And then in March of 2020, everything pivoted to remote learning,” she said. “The faculty were amazing in terms of transitioning the courses to online … (and) have risen to every challenge.”

When classes resumed last fall, students could do some clinical work in carefully controlled and socially distanced settings, she said. But it has not been like it was before the pandemic.

So the vaccine clinics have been “a tremendous experience” for the students, Wetsel said, even allowing them to participate in a “historic mission.” One day, she said, they administered more than 1,800 vaccinations.

“It’s been really incredible. The students have learned so much,” she said. “They are paired one-on-one with … nurses who are mentoring them in the administration of the vaccinations and the monitoring of patients for a period of time after they receive the vaccination for any untoward reaction.”

Clemson nursing student Jade Huang said she “absolutely loved” the experience.

“When I heard we were able to do the vaccine clinic, I was really excited,” said the 20-year-old junior. “It’s a great opportunity for us.”

Though it was different from traditional clinical rotations, it was great for honing skills and helping the community, she said, and she was thrilled to work with “actual patients.”

“I got to practice giving injections in patients and … better my communications skills,” she said. “A big part of nursing is just talking to your patients and getting them to trust you.”

Huang said she was able to administer more than 100 vaccines, which provided not only valuable experience but a lot of positive feedback.

“The people who were getting their vaccines said, ‘You are doing so well. I didn’t even feel that.’ It was such a positive atmosphere,” she said. “And I really appreciated it.”

At 21, Podedworny is slated to graduate from Clemson next year and said volunteering at the Kmart clinic was a valuable experience. He also enjoyed helping the community.

“At first, it was intimidating for me. But after you give the first one, and they tell you you did a good job, you know you’re doing good,” he said. 

“I’ve gained a lot of valuable experience. For one, real experience with patients, and getting to see what it’s like,” he added. “I was happy to help.”