Newly minted Olympic College nurses enter the profession at pandemic's height

·6 min read
Nursing students in Olympic College take a simulation class in a lab in January 2019. The simulations have been expanded during the pandemic, for times its not possible for students to work at the hospital.
Nursing students in Olympic College take a simulation class in a lab in January 2019. The simulations have been expanded during the pandemic, for times its not possible for students to work at the hospital.

COVID-19 tired out many, but not Erik Coburn's desire to help people.

Now taking care of patients on the third floor of St. Michael Medical Center, Coburn, 49, left his job in sales and in 2017 began his journey to becoming an independent registered nurse.

"I wish this had struck me sooner, but at my age, I just, you know, wanted to make an impact on the world. I wanted to do something positive," Coburn said.

Coburn is among a new cohort of nurses who are a few months into beginning their careers at St. Michael Medical Center in Silverdale, at a time when the COVID-19 pandemic has brought critical staffing shortages here and at hospitals nationwide.

Check out: St. Michael Medical Center requests staffing support

But as nurses here are leaving their posts as a result of burnout or for more lucrative travel positions, OC's recent graduates say they are happy to be bringing the skills and care to their community during the historic pandemic.

Training at Olympic College and St. Michael has equipped him with the skills required to take care of patients during a historic pandemic, Coburn said.

OC program competitive, even during the pandemic

Coburn had been thinking about becoming a nurse for over a decade. He realized that sales was not a good fit for him and that what he really wanted to do is to help people and make a difference, he said.

In 2017, he took prerequisite courses at community colleges in Washington state. Coburn was admitted to the Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN) program in Olympic College in 2019. He graduated in June and was hired by St. Michael in August.

Erik Coburn graduated from Olympic College with his Associate Degree in Nursing in June. He joined St. Michael Medical Center in August, one of 22 OC grads to take positions at the hospital.
Erik Coburn graduated from Olympic College with his Associate Degree in Nursing in June. He joined St. Michael Medical Center in August, one of 22 OC grads to take positions at the hospital.

The ADN program in Olympic College is competitive. Around 200 to 300 people apply for the program each year, and 60 to 70 applicants are admitted to the program, according to Olympic College.

In 2019, the department received 263 applications and admitted 63, according to OC Nursing professor Suzanne Cook. The program's acceptance rate in the past three years fell between 23.9% and 29.4%.

Founded in 1968, the Associate Degree Nursing program has been training students to become registered nurses. Students like Coburn, who live in Kitsap County, often get hired and serve the community after graduating from the program, Cook said.

ICYMI: St. Michael emergency room plagued by staffing shortage, hospital workers say

Students in the two-year nursing program do clinical hours in St. Michael and St. Anthony hospital in Gig Harbor. When the pandemic hit in 2020 and lockdowns were put into place, the department couldn't send students to the hospital. So Cook and others in the department started a simulation program, dramatically expanded during the pandemic, in which instructors teach students similar things to what they would be learning in the hospital when interacting with real patients, Cook said.

Nursing students in Olympic College take simulation class in a lab in January 2019.
Nursing students in Olympic College take simulation class in a lab in January 2019.

When students couldn't go to the simulation lab, simulations were conducted via Zoom.

"We create patients for them to take care of with our simulators that breathe, and talk, and have blood, and things like that," Cook said.

Nyx Lenihan, 27, also graduated from the program in June and works at St. Michael. Lenihan said Olympic College did a fantastic job to make sure that students were not missing out on the learning opportunities that they needed.

"It (simulations) was a mixture of pre-recorded instances as well as kind of live acting from our clinical instructors," Lenihan said.

Students were broken up into smaller clinical groups of six to eight people. They got case studies, discussed them with their learning partners, and stated what they would do to help patients in those circumstances. Sometimes it could be a picture that shows a newborn baby's heartbeat, or a voice recording acted by some of the lab resource nurses showing what a nurse might hear from a patient at the scene.

"Like, 'Oh man, you know, my stomach is hurting...and there's a lot of blood on my pad.' You know, kind of giving us clues like if we were heading into the room, these are things that we might hear," Lenihan said.

Though things changed during the pandemic, the program provided students with content that met the requirements for them to get the license, Lenihan said.

Nyx Lenihan is one of 22 Olympic College nursing graduates to join St. Michael Medical Center post-graduation. Lenihan works on the post-surgical floor at St. Michael.
Nyx Lenihan is one of 22 Olympic College nursing graduates to join St. Michael Medical Center post-graduation. Lenihan works on the post-surgical floor at St. Michael.

As new hires at St. Michael, Lehinan and Coburn entered the Nursing Residency program.

Begun in 2009, the program aims to nurture new registered nurses by pairing them with experienced nurses who teach and guide them in the hospital. Every new registered nurse with less than six months of working experience hired by St. Michael goes through the 15-18 week program.

It makes St. Michael's new RNs more confident and competent to do their job, said Kira White, the coordinator of the program at St. Michael.

The Nursing Residency program is funded by the St. Michael Medical Center Foundation. The hospital has two orientation sessions to train the new graduates each year.

Coburn and Lenihan were part of the latest cohort of the program and participated from August to December. With 31 new nurses, it's the biggest cohort the program ever had. Out of the 31 new RNs, 22 graduated from Olympic College, five were from other colleges within Washington state and four were from out-of-state, according to White.

No regrets: 'My favorite thing is patient care'

A group photo of registered nurses hired by St. Michael Medical Center.
A group photo of registered nurses hired by St. Michael Medical Center.

Lenihan now works on a post-surgical floor in St. Michael. His daily work includes educating patients who had surgery on how to take care of themselves when returning home.

Lenihan enjoys the job.

"My favorite thing is patient care," Lenihan said. "I love talking with patients, so it's been a very good match for me."

Lenihan said he has wanted to pursue a nursing career since he was 18, when he was a live-in caregiver for his grandfather, who had cancer before he died. He had worked closely with hospice care professionals and became interested in the dying process.

Right now, Lenihan's end goal with nursing is to be in hospice.

While burnout among health professionals is in the spotlight with the pandemic, nurses have been combating it for a long time even before the pandemic, Lenihan said, adding that he and his co-workers are doing their best to cope with the changing situation amid the pandemic.

Lenihan said one of the biggest challenges as a new nurse is dealing with imposter syndrome and self-doubt.

"Do I actually belong here? Am I smart enough to do what I'm doing?" Lenihan said.

"And the answer is always 'Yes, you are and you're doing great,'" Lenihan said he learned while at OC.

Coburn works two to three 12-hour shifts a week. When he's off, he makes sure to relax through activities like skiing. After the years of training to be an RN, Coburn said he has every intention of making this his final career, so he recognizes the importance of taking care of himself and preserving his passion.

"It's got to last at least 25 years," he said. "So, I make sure I do what I can to avoid burnout."

And, one thing he's learned coming into his nursing career during a pandemic: it's important to take care of yourself. Because if you don't take care of yourself, you don't have the capacity to take care of others, Coburn said.

"We use the F-word lot. Not that bad F-word, but flexibility," Coburn said. "That was one thing they taught us in nursing school."

Reach breaking news reporter Peiyu Lin at pei-yu.lin@kitsapsun.com or on Twitter @peiyulintw.

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This article originally appeared on Kitsap Sun: Olympic College nurses enter the profession at pandemic's height

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