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In the extraordinary public health emergency that we find ourselves in, NHS staff stand, as they always do, at the front line.
As we contemplate the ramifications and after effects of this global pandemic, the need for nurses and medics has never been greater. Trained and skilled staff are responding to a dire and unprecedented crisis.
Most have the knowledge and skills to deliver the care needed in all stages of the illness trajectory – but this situation is new and frightening and is certainly unknown territory. If trained, experienced staff are feeling anxious, challenged, and, at times, unsafe, please spare a thought for our nursing students.
Here are two accounts from both a third-year and a second-year nursing student – very different situations as one finds themselves in the depth of working as a student within a hospital, while the other finds themselves ‘pulled’ abruptly from the clinical area as the pandemic takes hold.
Fiona Cust is senior lecturer in children’s nursing, Staffordshire University
As nursing students, we have become accustomed to adapting quickly, cycling through areas and moving swiftly from one challenge to the next. Working through a pandemic has changed all aspects of our lives, and we have eagerly taken on new responsibilities to support those around us with little time to comprehend the impact of such massive changes.
We have needed to find new ways of working and communicating while learning in environments where even the norms are shifting. Changes in the way we protect ourselves and difficulties in procurement of equipment have created new limitations.
Learning opportunities have become unavailable as new challenges arise, and even the course structure itself has, at times, been confusing and vague as we find new ways of learning in a system struggling to keep up with our rapidly changing needs.
Elongated placements and lack of clarity surrounding course completion resulted in a lack of urgency, heightening tension and anxiety for many. With increasing workloads and additional stress many struggled to balance academics and the changing face of family life with the increasing demands placed upon us on the wards.
Additional personal protective equipment (PPE) around the clock has added a sense of sterility and separation from patients. Throughout training and as a patient myself, I have valued and respected the connectedness, humanity and empathy patients need to feel from those who care for them, that give them hope, trust and a sense of being cared for.
Face masks, coming to symbolise protection and safety, have also created communication barriers between professionals, and between us and our patients, as they struggle to decipher even the meaning of an empathetic glance with a smile hidden beneath plastic.
Families struggle to come to terms with traumatic events and upsetting news amid the confusion and distress of visiting restrictions. Fear, misunderstanding and conflict are still on the rise as uncertainty lingers. Finding new ways to empower patients to keep connected with family and friends has become an intense focus as its importance is realised by us all.
It has been a struggle to find where we fit in as student employees within the hospital hierarchy. As students we are at the bottom of the pile, unpaid and often undervalued. The addition of employee benefits and salary forced a recognition of student presence and value on the ward, resulting in conflict and confusion as staff struggled to understand our role and purpose.
However, over time it seemed to create a new appreciation for the skills, knowledge, enthusiasm and support students bring to the ward, resulting in a positive shift in attitude among many, and a level of acceptance we are not often afforded as students.
Access to social support has been limited, self-care opportunities restricted, and without the celebrations and social activities that motivated us many students lack morale, enthusiasm, and the sense of achievement that would ordinarily have propelled us into our first roles as newly qualified nurses.
But with more time to settle into our final student role, become acquainted with our environment and colleagues, and realise the expectations and reality of ward life, the separation between learning and practising has become even more blurred.
Many have already settled into areas in which they will continue to pursue their chosen career and will soon move from student to newly qualified nurse with ease. Borne out of fear and necessity, the unique shape of our final placements has equipped us with an unexpected sense of confidence and preparedness as we move forward into practice.
Sarah Burnett is a third-year children’s nursing student
Deciding, at the age of 25 years old, to re-enter the world of academia was a leap of faith. You are just finding your feet and then, a pandemic. No amount of life experience or academic know how can prepare anyone for the months that the world continues to endure. Being a second-year student nurse offers its own challenges into the mix.
News that placements were ending happened abruptly. One day you are on the ward, the next, at home with no knowledge of what is to come. The questions from that moment on begin to mount with very few answers given, other than “these are unprecedented times”. These words quickly become hurtful due to the lack of true understanding and meaning behind them.
Early on, it became apparent that third-year students were joining the front line, with rumours that we were next. Panic. As a second year, you are not a new student, but you are far from an experienced one either. Limbo. News then hits that more students are going to be called in to work. So, forms completed, mental preparation completed and then… nothing. Again, limbo. The sudden rush of emotions and then an eerie silence appears with the words “theory pathway”.
The Nursing and Midwifery Council states that a nurse should be compassionate, kind and caring. This situation forced the natural instincts to help to become clouded by guilt. The recurrent questions and statements of “how is it going in the hospital?” and “you are so kind and brave; I don’t know how you do it?” create awkward responses and bring a wave of shame and guilt. Anger towards the situation battles the guilt and that battles helplessness.
It is like playing a game of Uno. Watching the person after you play a ‘pick up four’ and then the next player and then the next, until it is your go and you are left to pick up what feels like hundreds of cards. Hands filled to the brim, forming any kind of organisation appears impossible as you try to grasp the last strands of hope for victory.
After the madness calms and the anger clears, you remember that being dealt a rubbish hand, does not mean you lose instantly, it just means you need to figure out a plan to work your way back in to the game. That plan, in real life, comes in the form of a support network, be it family, friends and/or lecturers, alongside some soul searching.
Mustering up the courage to carry on and find the light at the end of the tunnel, has been difficult, but nothing is impossible. Now it is time for third year.
Charlotte Carpenter is a second-year children’s nursing student