Brock Nursing students learning on COVID-19 front lines

A clinical placement over Winter Term helped Rachael Nalunga understand why nursing is often considered the heart of health care.

The third-year Brock University Nursing student spent weekends working at the St. Catharines hospital, building bonds with patients during the unprecedented circumstances presented by the global pandemic.

“To say that it was different is an understatement,” Nalunga, a first-generation immigrant from Entebbe, Uganda, said of the hospital experience during times of COVID-19.

Additional screening protocols and increased personal protective equipment such as face shields meant communicating with patients came with a unique set of challenges, she said.

“We were all experiencing COVID-19 for the first time, yet still trying to do our best to learn and help out where we could,” Nalunga said. “There was this additional understanding and compassion everyone showed to one another that made the whole experience worthwhile.”

Throughout Winter Term, from Jan. 11 to April 23, Brock had 275 Nursing students in clinical placements and long-term care homes across the province. Spring Term, which started May 3 and runs until June 4, has 172 Nursing students putting their skills to work in the community, including a select group at mass vaccination clinics in Niagara.

“Students have had the chance to experience nursing during an evolving pandemic and to learn from front-line workers. It has been a valuable learning opportunity,” said Dawn Prentice, Professor and Interim Chair of Brock’s Department of Nursing.

Nalunga and her clinical group were on a mental health rotation at the St. Catharines hospital, practising examinations that required them to assess the state of a person’s mental health based on questionnaire results, body language and other cues.

“There was a lot of simply talking with people, but we also did things like colour together and even play basketball when it was OK to go out onto the patio,” Nalunga said. “A lot of rapport was developed, which is essential to a therapeutic relationship between patient and nurse.”

The sense of pride she developed from helping patients who were disconnected from their friends and family allowed her to look past the added pressures created by the pandemic.

“It felt good to come into the hospital and interact with people who have been closed off from everyone outside,” Nalunga said. “It was rewarding to be able to offer them support by listening, sharing my opinions and helping them to further understand their circumstances.

“I think the patients really appreciated the company, which boosted my confidence as a student nurse.”

Nalunga attributes a great deal of her success in the Nursing program thus far to her Clinical Instructor, Frances Cortese, who created a space where students felt safe enough to ask questions and share their opinions.

“I could comfortably and respectfully comment on what was working and what wasn’t,” Nalunga said. “She recognized and acknowledged when I did something well and likewise pointed out the areas that needed improvement.”

Cortese also shared experiences about working in the field, which inspired Nalunga to have a greater appreciation for the important role nurses have in a patient’s road to recovery.

At Brock, knowledge learned in the classroom is integrated with clinical practice beginning in the Nursing program’s first year. The University’s recently renovated teaching facility provides students with an advantage in developing the necessary skills to be successful in their careers.

While her focus more recently has been fixed on her placement, Nalunga took full advantage of the extracurricular activities offered on campus in her early years at Brock in order to broaden her horizons and meet new people.

“There is so much creativity in the events offered outside of class,” she said, “and so many opportunities to meet new people if you are willing to put yourself out there.”

While Nalunga admits the transition to online learning came with its challenges, she felt supported by the programming Brock offered.

“I had trouble adjusting and adapting, but the supports were always there through student wellness and professors,” she said. “I was able to utilize these resources to support my education.”

One of the supports Nalunga relied on was the Conversation Partner Program, which connects Brock students who wish to practise their speaking skills in a new language. Looking for ways to increased her engagement during COVID, Nalunga took the advice of her partner and attended a number of virtual events.

“There were events created on ExperienceBU just so students could check in with someone about how they were feeling,” she said. “They felt very personalized and provided so much insight into how to react better to the pandemic and online school.”

Knowing she can turn to the University’s supports if she’s struggling is comforting, Nalunga said, and makes her truly appreciate her decision to come to Brock.

“It makes me feel this school is more than a place to just work to get a degree and get out,” she said. “Brock is creating room for more than just academic growth.”

After completing her degree, Nalunga plans to work as a nurse to pay for medical school with the hope of one day becoming a family physician.

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