Student nurses reflect on adapting to 'new normal' during pandemic

COVID-19 has profoundly changed how nursing students are learning and preparing for their future careers: Five current students share their experiences
UCalgary Nursing students during COVID 19
UCalgary Nursing students during COVID 19

As a nursing student, I was taught how to wash my hands properly as one of my first lessons. I thought it was silly, back then, thinking, ‘‘I already know how to wash my hands.” 

Little did I know that handwashing would become the most important practice in the world today, especially during this unprecedented and devastating global crisis. Washing your hands is very important, as we have all learned by now, surely.

Teaching fantastic hand hygiene to billions of people around the world is one good thing to have come out of COVID-19. On the other hand, immense grief, worries, and difficulties have arisen as a result of COVID-19, which continues to spread around the world. 

Typically, every nursing student has a plan for their academic career but no one would even imagine their plans being disrupted by a pandemic. 

Disrupted plans, disrupted reality

As a third-year nursing student, I was at the Alberta Children’s Hospital when I received the news. Nursing students, who would typically be completing clinical placements in the community or hospital, received an email on March 13, 2020. The email revealed that off-campus clinical placements would be cancelled for students. Labs and classes were modified for the remaining semester.

I was having the most wonderful day at the unit, when I looked around and realized it would be my last. During a debrief at the end of the day, there were some tears as we discussed our emotions and feelings regarding the new, unprecedented reality we were faced with. 

My heart aches. It’s difficult to watch people struggle, yet not being able to help in a tangible way.

But despite feelings of uncertainty and stress, nursing students continue to demonstrate courage, resilience and adaptability. During these unprecedented times, UCalgary nursing students are getting creative in the ways we are contributing to the community.

Nursing students are incredibly self-driven, motivated and passionate individuals. Many of my peers are serving as health-care aides.

Some peers are caring for vulnerable people through home care. Many of us are working from home, providing virtual support to the community. Meanwhile, some are studying at home, gathering the knowledge to become registered nurses.

This is the first article of a two-part series in which nursing students at UCalgary shared with me, in their own words, what they’re experiencing due to COVID-19. 

Hafsah Syed, third-year nursing student, UCalgary

Hafsah Syed, third-year nursing student, UCalgary

Mahnoor Zainab, third-year student, UCalgary Nursing
After graduation, she hopes to work in the labour and delivery field or neonatal intensive care unit. 

“In times like this, it’s very important to recognize that contrary to the glamorous life portrayed on social media, there is a tough and daunting side to nursing as well. We go into work/clinical with risks that are known and unknown. There is always the risk of contracting a disease or illness, regardless of a pandemic or not.

But we also know that we have a passion to help others in their most vulnerable moments which is what pushes us to continue to show up to school, work and clinical day after day.

After a lot of reflection and feeling like I’m ‘behind’ in terms of developing my nursing skill set, I’ve come to terms with the fact that it’s okay to feel uncertain and even disappointed. As nursing students, we rely heavily  on our clinical experiences to practise and refine our skills.

The day clinical was cancelled felt as if something was taken away from us. It was almost as if we collectively experienced a loss. But despite all this, it’s important to not let these emotions overpower us. It’s important to take a step back and realize that life has its ups and downs but there’s always a silver lining. We need to realize that we are in this together and we will be resilient and overcome this.

Having the privilege to continue school from home, I’ve taken advantage of all the extra time I have by doing the things I want to do. As a student nurse who has a very demanding course load, I often feel like my free time isn’t always my time. There’s always something I could be studying for or working towards.

In my spare time, I’ve indulged in catching up on my favourite TV shows, taking long walks while listening to self-help podcasts, and spending time with family and virtually, with friends. I’ve also underestimated the power of a 1,000-piece puzzle. It is not easy.

During the pandemic, there is always a way we can help others. We can help by donating goods, supporting local businesses and most importantly continuing to social distance to protect the vulnerable among us and to follow the measures set by health officials. Always make sure to set aside time for your favourite activities and to talk to loved ones! If you don’t take care of yourself, you won’t be able to care for others.”

Mahnoor Zainab, third-year nursing student, UCalgary

Mahnoor Zainab, third-year nursing student, UCalgary

Chen Fang, third-year student, UCalgary Nursing
He is a resident health screener at Silvera for Seniors. After graduation, he hopes to work with cancer patients, as a nurse in the field of oncology.

“As the Government of Canada has advised Canadians to practise social distancing in the COVID-19 pandemic, we are all struggling to live in this ‘new normal.’ Being a term 6 nursing student, my life has been disrupted immensely as I am unable to spend time with friends and no longer have clinical practice. 

However, I do not think it will benefit me spiritually and intellectually if I just sit around and do nothing. I recognized that it was important to keep myself busy and to motivate myself to learn during this outbreak. As a result, I have been studying online lectures and trying to stay up-to-date with the current COVID-19 situation, locally and internationally.

I think that being able to work will further strengthen several of my nursing skills and give me more insight into how the health-care system responds to this outbreak. 

After watching the news and from being in the nursing community, I feel grateful for all the hard work provided by health-care workers. Frontline nurses and other health professionals are working around the clock to provide us with the best possible care so that there will be less casualties.

Over the past weeks, I developed the understanding that in addition to promoting optimal patient outcomes, the nursing profession is also a commitment to serving the public. This commitment to serving the public is driving every frontline health-care worker to ensure positive outcomes on their patients. 

I want to remind everyone to stay positive and to practice social distancing. Let's fight this outbreak by helping frontline health workers relieve their workload!”

Chen Fang, third-year nursing student, UCalgary

Chen Fang, third-year nursing student, UCalgary

Paige Hutton, third-year student, UCalgary Nursing
She currently works as a health-care aide in a long-term care facility in High Prairie. After graduation, she hopes to become an emergency room (ER) nurse.

“It is a very strange time to be a student, but it has allowed me to recognize my values and recognize the important role nurses play in the world. It is not about being a superhero but simply about feeling fulfillment in the work we do and adapting our knowledge and skills to continually changing times. 

We may have missed four weeks of clinical but I trust that moving forward there will be a way to integrate students into the current medical world not only to help us move forward in our education but to help alleviate current stress on the health-care system. 

Most everyone I know is currently looking to join in working as health-care aides, porters, undergraduate nursing employees — anything that will help us get our foot in the door of the hospital to start making a difference. 

I know I am not alone in feeling like I am on the sidelines waiting to be put in the game. One of my patients heard me say I am “just a student” and she stopped me and said, “no, not just-- there is pride in being a student and working your way up in the world.” So I will keep being a student looking for opportunity and working hard to make a difference wherever possible.”

Paige Hutton, third-year nursing student, UCalgary

Paige Hutton, third-year nursing student, UCalgary

Haneul Woo, first-year student, UCalgary Nursing
She aspires to become a paediatric nurse.

"I’m not a fan of online courses. I find that the lectures are not as engaging, there's too many distractions, and my five-year-old ASUS laptop can’t seem to handle two hours of keeping a tab open while I furiously scribble down calculations to answer a Webwork exam. 

On a positive note, quarantine seems like a breath of fresh air; a chance to withdraw from the hectic life of university, and appreciate the small things that make my life purposeful. Not to mention, quarantine has been a saving grace to my sleep schedule.

Although many students take this situation as an opportunity to rest, as a nursing student I feel uneasy, somewhat obligated to not let my guard down. While I spend time binge-watching series on Netflix and browsing Youtube, there is a question that lingers around in the back of my mind: Will I be prepared enough in the future?

The current pandemic has snapped me to reality. In three more years, there will potentially be dozens of patients' lives depending on my peers and me. It is slightly overwhelming to think about the emotional and physical challenges that I will face in the future. However, I understand that I am not entirely powerless. Instead of feeling discouraged about the future, I will mediate my uncertainty by doing what I can to prepare, help whenever I can and hope for the best. There is always something to stay hopeful for."

UCalgary resources on COVID-19