Graduating During COVID-19

The below is written by Megan Dorsey, MS, RN, C-EFM, a 2020 graduate of The Ohio State University College of Nursing.  Randee L. Masciola DNP, APRN-CNP, WHNP-BC is the Lead Faculty in the College’s WHNP Specialization Track and provided assistance with this blog.

2020 began with so much promise for my life. I was a few short months from completing my Master’s in Nursing in the Women’s Health Nurse Practitioner (WHNP) specialization track at The Ohio State University (OSU). My days focused on preparing for class, clinicals, graduation plans, applying for jobs, and organizing my life. I also managed a part time job as a registered nurse in a Labor, Delivery, Recovery, and Postpartum (LDRP) unit, along with an extremely active two-year-old daughter. COVID-19 was not really on my radar. Then March came and everything changed.

As March began,  I was seeing pregnant women and doing annual gyn exams in clinicals. Within days, all clinicals were cancelled through the end of the spring semester. Fortunately, my 500 hours of patient-facing direct care were already complete, but I still needed to finish my clinicals and obtain the required 600 hours to sit for the exam. I had job interviews coming up for WHNP opportunities beginning in July – I needed to graduate on time. To say I was stressed was an understatement – I was losing my mind!

Thankfully, The College of Nursing faculty quickly created alternative options. Opportunities in leadership with our advanced health assessment course, case study simulation, wellness partners to fellow graduate students, and providing telehealth phone triage with a local OB/GYN office rounded out my required clinical experience. They also transitioned our remaining classes online and touched base weekly via Zoom. As students, we were all short tempered and irritated, but at least we knew we were being heard.

Throughout this time, I knew my greatest risk of COVID-19 exposure would be at work – a LDRP unit in a metropolitan area – and my biggest fear was bringing anything home to my family.  I often work as the charge nurse and it is our responsibility to triage. First person in the room means being the first person at risk for exposure. We were frequently competing with the ER for Personal Protective Equipment (PPE).

Additionally, Information and policies were constantly changing and even though we knew it was in the best interest of the patients and staff, it was frustrating and stressful. The hardest change was limiting patients to one support person.  And, while most patients were wonderful, it was challenging to help them understand that the policies in place were for their safety, and all the healthcare workers and the patients that came in after.

About two weeks into the pandemic, my biggest fear came to be: I developed a cold, which worsened into a persistent, dry cough. I learned that I had a potential exposure and was taken off work and referred for testing. I spent a large part of that first night crying, banishing myself to the basement away from my family.  I was terrified I had exposed them. I started thinking about becoming sicker, being hospitalized, and my daughter getting sick. How would we care for her if I were sick?  What if my husband or daughter became sick and I couldn’t be with them at the hospital? Would they be scared and alone? The mom worry and guilt spiraled out of control. I was tested the next day and waited 2 days for results. Thankfully as each day continued, I felt better, so the worry dissipated. My test finally came back negative.

I returned to work on my next shift, which created another hurdle: childcare. All daycares were closed, and my husband and I had to find a way to care for our daughter while also doing our own jobs and schoolwork. After long discussions, we asked my in-laws to come stay with us and help care for her. We are so lucky to have them, and I will never be able to repay them for putting themselves at risk.

When clinicals were cancelled, I was so anxious about graduating on time. But eventually, due to the frequent communication and support from our school, my academics became the thing I was the least stressed about. The most helpful new opportunities were the telehealth hours and case-based simulations with fellow students via Zoom, and the wellness partnership training. As we return to our new normal, I feel like the wellness course should be offered to all nurse practitioner students. It really taught me how to talk with patients, not at them.

Another huge support system was my fellow students. We had group text messages to voice our frustrations but also to make each other laugh and check-in. We would have Zoom meetings after our kids were asleep just to vent and talk about challenges at work – we work in three different hospital systems, so it was helpful to hear how things were going at different sites. My managers were also a huge help at my job; they kept us informed but also fought for our safety, something I heard was lacking at other facilities. My greatest support system, though, will always be my family. My parents, brothers and sisters-in-law have been exquisite by sending masks, doing drive by visits, and making me laugh. My biggest cheerleader through this has been my husband. We have found new ways to balance life, but also focused on putting each other first.

This has been a trying time for a graduating WHNP, but as my Dean would say, it has been character building. When the stay at place order began, I did not know if I was going to graduate, be separated from my family, or get sick myself. I have gone through every emotion possible, but I have come out stronger and more compassionate. I have spent more time with my family, which helped me solidify my priorities. I am incredibly sad that I will not be able to walk at graduation, but I am hopeful for a future graduation ceremony.

I think COVID will change health care for the better – our scope of practice, how we interact with patients, and what we deem acceptable in our own work-life balance. I will forever be honored for graduating from The Ohio State University, especially during this historic time. Through it all, my faculty not only prepared me to step into this new role as a WHNP, but how to be innovative to find evidence-based solutions to challenges. I look forward to the day I will talk to younger nurse generations about this time, and how we came through stronger and more prepared for the next crisis.