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As part of her requirements to graduate from the University of Michigan, Nursing junior Kaitlyn McDonald goes to Michigan Medicine like she would any other school year. But this year, her clinicals — the component of the School of Nursing curriculum spent in the field — are taking place against the backdrop of an ongoing global pandemic.

“I never thought that something like this would happen,” McDonald said. “But I’m really proud to do this and I’m really proud to be learning this profession to be able to help people, especially during times like this.”

COVID-19 has touched nearly all facets of American life since its onset in March. University leadership announced a “public-health informed” hybrid fall semester, which began at the start of the month, with nearly 80% of coursework delivered remotely.

The Nursing School has, in turn, adapted its curriculum to match the moment. Students reported many of their lectures now take place online, as do the post-clinical reflection meetings that offer a chance to reflect on their experiences in the field.

However, students are completing in-person clinicals as they would any other semester, but with some changes to protocol. Students wear masks on their shifts — some of which can last up to 16 hours — and they are not required to treat patients who have tested positive for COVID-19. 

During a clinical, students will work with staff on day-to-day tasks to better understand the specific area of medicine they study and how nurses fit in. Nursing students have multiple clinical experiences before graduating, with placements ranging from emergency rooms to assisted living facilities for senior citizens.

Winter semester clinicals were canceled in March because unprecedented circumstances arose that were outside the school’s control, according to Nursing Dean Patricia Hurn. She said the school and clinical partners now have a better understanding of the risks associated with the coronavirus, allowing them to provide in-person clinicals.

Students in joining the front lines are also gaining necessary clinical hours to become state-certified nurses. There is no option for students to complete clinicals virtually, Hurn said, but the Nursing School will work with students who need to step away from any part of their studies.

And students are seeing what it’s like to be in a hospital when the unexpected happens, Hurn said.

“It’s one thing as a student to think about how difficult things could be if there were a pandemic, if there were a major disaster,” Hurn said. “It’s another thing to be working in the reality where that’s the case.”

But there is still risk associated with going to clinicals, McDonald said. Nurses might interact with patients who have gotten inaccurate COVID-19 test results, for example. McDonald, who worked at Michigan Medicine over the summer as a patient care technician, also said patients could test positive after she already worked with them and she would not know if she had been exposed.

Some seniors work in departments like emergency rooms where they may not know if a patient has the virus upon first interaction. Other Nursing students will also be assisting in contact tracing efforts this semester.

Nursing students typically begin clinicals during their sophomore year. The number of hours spent on these rotations largely depends on what year they are in the program and their scheduling. Some seniors in the program have tried to schedule additional hours at the beginning of the semester to ensure they can still meet graduation and certification requirements if school moves online, Nursing senior Reagan Cloutier said.

“Most of us are going to graduate, obviously, with this pandemic still happening,” Cloutier, who is also president of the Student Nurses Association, said. “It’s good for us to experience what it’s like right now, as a student. That way, once we get out into the real world, we’re going to know what to expect and how to operate under these circumstances.”

Nursing students have felt a sense of pride and usefulness in being able to provide medical care as the pandemic rages on. McDonald said she felt helpless in March when their rotations were canceled, wishing she could do something to help. But in being back, they are also learning a lesson about their future profession: nurses have to expect the unexpected in medicine.

When they began their clinicals again this fall, students said they felt excited to receive the hands-on training. 

Regardless of the changes brought on by the pandemic, students say much of it feels the same. They still get to work with medical professionals and interact with patients. Despite the risks, these students agree that they are where they are meant to be.

“It’s inspired me,” Nursing junior Maureen Kozlowski said. “I look at all this chaos that’s going on in the world, but I’m still going to provide the exact same care for my patient because they don’t deserve anything less.”

Daily News Editor Alex Harring can be reached at 

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