'Put me out there': Nursing students eager to help ease healthcare crisis caused by pandemic

DURHAM, N.C. (WTVD) -- As health systems continue to face staffing challenges, Triangle nursing students are sharing their willingness to pitch in and provide assistance.

"Put me out there. I just got to get through school first," said Natalie Roman, a senior in NC Central's nursing program.

Roman, sitting next to fellow seniors Ashley Sherman and Madison Webb, sat down Tuesday with ABC11 to explain why they wanted to help, especially as hospitals are overwhelmed with an influx of COVID-19 patients.

"The community definitely needs a lot more education. There's a lot of misconstrued ideas about healthcare, and exactly the prevalence of diseases. So for me the biggest thing was, education for the community, but then we need to do better for the community in (times) like this. For low-income families, it's been very hard for them to stay free of the disease," said Webb.

"We're fresh. We haven't gone through the burnout yet, so like I said, use us," Roman said. "We're not at that point yet, and let the people who are at burnout, give them their rest. They deserve it."

The pandemic has motivated the aspiring health care workers.

"The pandemic just, it's driven me even more to want to give back," Sherman said. "And this is the perfect time to do it. There's a lot of learning opportunities, sad to say, in the direction that we're going. But now is the time when we need nurses."

Roman and Sherman both lost loved ones to COVID-19.

"I had an uncle in Colombia pass away from COVID. And that was particularly hard on my mother, that was her brother," Roman said. "Just due to the fact that I live three hours away from my mother, I cannot go visit her and just tell her I'm sorry that this happened.

She added that her mother was unable to be with her family either.

Dr. Yolanda VanRiel, the Nursing Department Chair at NC Central, noted the department has seen increased interest from applicants.

"We are frontline providers, and they see exactly what we do. We're the ones that take care of the families, we're the ones who talk to them, talk to the patients, communicate with the patients," said VanRiel, who also works as a registered nurse.

Nurse shortages existed before March 2020, but have been greatly exacerbated since the beginning of the pandemic.

"We're having a mass exodus of our nursing educator workforce. And a lot of that has to do with pay scales. Unfortunately, a nurse educator can make more taking care of patients at the bedside or clinics than they can actually teaching," said Dr. Dennis Taylor, the president of the North Carolina Nurses Association.

An August survey of 463 respondents released by the North Carolina Nurses Association found that more than 75% reported staff shortages at their practice or facility, and nearly 60% had to work longer or different shifts in response.

Earlier this month, the American Nurses Association urged the US Department of Health and Human Services to classify the staffing shortages as a "national crisis," and asked it to take action to address it, including pay equity, providing mental health resources, recruitment and retainment incentives.

"When we talk about the bed shortage that we have in North Carolina, it's not that we actually have a physical shortage of beds, it's that we don't have the staff to staff those beds that we currently have," said Taylor.

Taylor further suggested loan forgiveness opportunities for people entering the nursing profession and efforts to increase diversity within the workforce.

"We just have to align the resources to be able to recruit folks and get them educated," Taylor said.

The difficult situation serves as fuel for the NC Central nursing students.

"We've only known nursing through a pandemic, so we're ready. That's what our normal is, and we're ready to take it on," Webb said.

Sherman agreed.

"The cases are rising, there's not as many beds, and the burnout is there for nurses," Sherman said. "So, if we can have the opportunity to come on in and help, why not?"
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