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Longwood nursing students help in fight against COVID

The mission to get residents in the Piedmont Health District vaccinated against COVID-19 has been a community effort. For Longwood University nursing students, the chance to administer vaccines serves as a way to finally join the fight.

Sierra Richardson, a senior at Longwood and a student in the university’s nursing program, will graduate and move to Richmond to work in a neuro stepdown unit at Bon Secours St. Mary’s Hospital in just a few short months.

During her time in Longwood’s nursing program, Richardson has spent countless hours working in clinical rotations in nearby hospitals. She serves as president of both the Longwood Senior Nursing Council and the school’s Nursing Honor Society.

Although young, Richardson has already dedicated her life to helping others and making a difference.

But when the COVID-19 pandemic struck, Richardson and so many others like her who are in their final stages of preparation before entering the world of health care found that they were now just bystanders watching helplessly on the sidelines as a global health crisis unfolded.

According to Richardson, nursing students at Longwood start their clinical rotations the spring semester of their sophomore year. They begin with one clinic course totaling 56 hours. Each semester the clinic hours get progressively longer until their senior year when they enter their preceptorship and perform 170 hours of direct patient care at a hospital of their choosing.

Currently, Richardson works full time as a night shift nurse at the Centra Southside Community Hospital ICU in Farmville.

Although it is hard work, it is right where Richardson and other nursing students want to be — in a hospital or clinic, helping patients.

But it was only a year ago the coronavirus made that work an impossibility.

Last spring, Richardson was just coming back from an environmental service trip in Puerto Rico when the COVID-19 pandemic took its grasp on the U.S. Within a week of her return, everything began shutting down as America raced to prepare itself to battle the pandemic.

Like all Longwood students, the young men and women in the school’s nursing program had their classes shifted online. Most hospitals could not invite nursing students back, and clinical rotations ceased.

“Nursing was very difficult to transfer online,” Richardson said. “It’s very intense. There’s a lot to learn, a lot to teach.”

While trying to gain health care experience through an internet connection was tough enough, Richardson and her fellow students found the real struggle came when they were no longer able to help care for patients.

As COVID cases ballooned in the U.S., so did the stories of doctors and nurses who were overwhelmed, scared and exhausted from months of fighting the virus.

Richardson and others like her were right on the cusp of entering the workforce, but for a time there was nothing they could do but watch.

“We felt more helpless than scared,” Richardson recalled. “As students, we weren’t able to go in and help them and do what we could to alleviate some of the stress and be another person in there caring for these patients, helping our fellow nurses.”

Slowly, things began to go somewhat back to normal. Over the summer, students were able to make up some of their clinical hours and return to some of the hospitals that were able to invite them back. When students came back to school in the fall, classes were held in person in large auditoriums where people could sit spaced apart.

Although students are back in local hospitals and doctor’s offices, that feeling of unhelpfulness in the fight to rid the country of the coronavirus can linger.

However, local vaccine clinics have given Richardson and other nursing students a much-needed role in the battle.

Right before coming back from spring semester, Richardson saw a notification she and other students in the nursing program had received on their Canvas page that they use for classes. The announcement stated Longwood University’s nursing department would be holding vaccine clinics for 1a and 1b recipients, and officials were inviting students to sign up to help administer shots. There was also a signup page for clinics that would occur at Centra Southside hospital.

It was the call to arms many students had been waiting for all this time.

“I remember getting that announcement, and I must have clicked on it a maximum of 10 minutes after it came out, and it was almost already full,” Richardson said of the online signup sheet. “All of our nursing students wanted to help so badly and be involved in the community and do something, be supportive, be helpful.”

Weeks worth of timeslots to administer vaccines at both the Longwood and Southside clinics filled up quickly.

Now, in March, Longwood students have helped to vaccinate thousands of area residents.

Richardson, who is herself inoculated against the virus, estimates she’s vaccinated somewhere around 100 people so far. For her, the chance to finally be able to get out and help the community achieve normality faster is a blessing, one that sometimes makes her emotional.

“When we go to these vaccine clinics, especially at Centra Southside, we’re talking with these patients. We talk to them and see how they’ve been doing,” she said. “There was this one patient at Centra Southside, that was their first time out of the house in months, like actually getting out of the house, and they were terrified to do that, but they really wanted the vaccine, and they were just so appreciative that we were there and able to give it to them as soon as possible.

“They were almost in tears,” she recalled, “and I was almost in tears just because of how powerful it was. They were scared for so long, and they were finally getting some sort of hope.”

Richardson is proud to represent Longwood University and others in the nursing program. She views her time spent at the clinics as an opportunity to help educate others on the benefits of the vaccine, and she hopes to see more residents choosing to be vaccinated against the coronavirus.

She added she’s seen instances on social media in which some people were questioning the safety of students helping to administer the vaccine.

“We really are trained to be administering these vaccines,” she commented. “We are constantly watched while we do them. It’s just been very beneficial for all of us to do it. Longwood has been amazing in helping nursing students prepare as much as they can to be nurses and getting that direct patient contact.”

It’s been a frightening process, but the pandemic hasn’t scared Richardson away from health care. In fact, it’s solidified her desire to help people.

“This pandemic has shown me why I really want to become a nurse,” she said.