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Beebe nursing school students serve during surge

Katie Tabeling

Lauren Carter, left, recently was awarded the DAISY Award at Beebe Healthcare for her commitment to patients. Because of Beebe’s nursing program, Carter was easily onboarded for work as a nurse. | PHOTO COURTESY OF RYAN MARSHALL

LEWES —  When the omnicron variant swept through Delaware, Lauren Carter was as ready as she could be. After all, the nurse had been working at Beebe Healthcare technically since 2020, but her hands-on experience dates back even further.

“Right when I finished the orientation, they sent me right back to the COVID ward. It was nerve-wracking at first, because of all the news about the variants,” Carter said. “But it turned out OK, since the treatment is almost the same as other cases I’ve dealt with before — just with PPE [personal protective equipment].”

Last winter, many hospital systems across the state reached a break with both ChristianaCare and Bayhealth running on crisis standards of care because there weren’t enough health care workers to support the flood of patients seeking treatment.

But one hospital — Beebe Healthcare — already had a support system in place well before the third wave. The Margaret H. Rollins School of Nursing at Beebe Healthcare had 45 students, including Carter, undergoing hands-on training in the hospital when the pandemic hit.

“It really was all hands on deck [at that time],” School of Nursing Administrator Karen Pickard told the Delaware Business Times. “We did allow our students to complete their clinicals that semester with a bedside nurse, so that way they got that experience and they were helping out.”

Answering the call

At the height of the omnicron variant in January, there were 6,800 fewer health care workers than in February 2020, according to the state Department of Labor. That forced Delaware’s hospitals to be creative to find helping hands. Gov. John Carney mobilized the National Guard to receive nursing certifications and assist, and 89 guard members did receive training.

But Carney also issued a public plea for volunteers. That plea turned into an active campaign facilitated by the Delaware Healthcare Association (DHA) to recruit college students to fill in the gaps.

The University of Delaware College of Health Sciences had 200 students work at various facilities, while Delaware Technical Community College had 120 nursing and allied health students answer the call. DelTech spokeswoman Christine Gillan said that the students were paid as part-time employees during their service in the hospitals. Bayhealth paid students $15 an hour for their time, according to the University of Delaware.

The DHA does not have final numbers on how many college students volunteered, but noted that its sign-up portal, advertised during one of Carney’s weekly press conferences during the surge, had 1,100 people sign up. Outside clinical work, volunteers helped clean and maintain patient rooms, deliver food to patients, work as clerks, security and lobby support, run supplies, help transport and lift patients.

“We are so thankful for all our volunteers who helped during that time, it was truly inspiring to see 1,100 Delawareans sign up to help out our hospital system as they were in a crisis,” DHA President and CEO Wayne Smith told DBT. “It was tremendously uplifting.”

Established pipeline

Beebe was in a unique position, since it is one of the few hospitals that has an affiliated nursing program. That grants students hands-on experience in a hospital that other colleges may not have.

“We really consider our students team members from the day they’re enrolled, because many of them work as a nurse tech just to keep their hands in the clinical work. It’s almost like an interview with them,” Pickard said.

The immediate hands-on experience was exactly what Carter was looking for. A self-described caretaker who graduated from Sussex Tech in 2017, she was eager to help people and thought Beebe’s program could have the most impact.

Outside of 90 hours of theory education, Carter estimates she put in 270 hours of work in the hospital. That could range anywhere between putting IVs in arms, removing staples, and doing head-to-toe checks and dressing wounds.

“You name it, we did it,” Carter said. “There’s a great lab with the mannequin to simulate things like a live birth, but there’s nothing like applying it in real life.”

On top of that, Beebe’s nursing program includes “districts,” or an eight-hour shift of full patient care. In her senior year, she had a preceptorship, where she worked closely with a more experienced nurse to work 12-hour shifts.

“It was a lot of work, but I don’t regret it at all. It helped prepare me for what was ahead,” Carter said.

Next class

Beebe’s nursing program has a high pass rate for licensing, hovering around 80%. Beebe Healthcare hires between 70% and 80% of them. Looking at a typical class, the average student is a woman around 21 years old, typically from Kent or Sussex counties. 

Pickard noted that Beebe focuses recruitment efforts with the Cape Henlopen School District as well as Sussex Tech, and some do come from the Smyrna and Middletown area, and a few come from right across the Maryland border.

Before the pandemic, it was typical to see the program max out at 50 students. This year’s class has 35 students. Pickard believes that’s more of a statement of the uncertainty in the last two years compared to lack of interest.

“Students are required to take a year of college courses before they enroll, and online learning sometimes doesn’t meet their needs. So they decided to go a different route,” she said.

As Delaware and the rest of the world is now in its second year of the COVID-19 pandemic, the health care field has seen new variants spread and infect people so fast, it slams emergency rooms. Nurses in particular have been leaving the workforce, some opting to make more money as a travel nurse where they can set their own hours and pay.

“Before the pandemic, I’d say all our students were here to stay. But we do see some of our nurses after a year or two get the travel bug,” Pickard said. “I’m more concerned about the profession as a whole, because to be honest, the issues were already there. But this has also shined a positive light onto the nursing profession.”

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