October 30, 2009 — Louisa High School students gathered in groups of four or five around examination tables in the University of Virginia School of Nursing's assessment lab on Oct. 23.
They took turns checking each other's eyes, ears and reflexes. Nursing professor Reba Moyer Childress told the group, "Here at U.Va., you learn about medications and clinical care."
The 20 are enrolled in a Certified Nursing Assistant program at the high school and were visiting U.Va. to learn about some of the skills students develop in nursing programs as they pursue professional degrees on the college level.
"They don't always understand their options," said Kathy Zeiler, who teaches one of the two classes at the high school. "This is a way to see what a college is like."
"These are 11th- and 12th-graders interested in college and health care careers," said Deanna Allison, who teaches the other section.
To enter the high school CNA program students had to take a required exam, and all are enrolled in a dual program in which they receive credit through Paul D. Camp Community College for their course work.
In the program, students spend half their day training to provide bedside care in nursing homes, home health care situations and hospitals and spend six weeks gaining practical experience in a nearby nursing home.
As CNAs, they will help patients with everyday activities such as eating, grooming and moving around. They can monitor vital signs, but their clinical duties end there. Many want to become more involved in direct patient medical care.
The visit to U.Va.'s School of Nursing was an opportunity to learn about the responsibilities college-prepared nurses have and what skills additional nursing education can provide. It was an introduction to where higher education nursing can lead, including becoming a registered nurse and earning a Ph.D. to teach others to become nurses or to conduct nursing-related research.
A highlight of the tour was the simulation lab where they witnessed "SimMan" and "SimBaby" in action. The mannequins are programmable to mimic symptoms and different medical scenarios. They are attached to IVs and other monitors, and can cough, cry and exhibit a variety of heartbeats, lung sounds and even talk.
"This is a learning environment that provides opportunities to take risks and synthesize massive amounts of information and put it all together," Childress told the group.
Students become comfortable with seeing IVs and ventilators and dealing with equipment in a controlled environment before engaging patients in actual settings, she added. "Technology is the tool. You are the practitioner."
"It boosts your confidence when you encounter a real patient," addedWhitney Smith, one of the U.Va. students on hand for the demonstration.
U.Va. nursing student Traci Kelly, who began her health care career as a CNA, said she appreciated the opportunities her registered nurse's degree will afford her. "I wanted to be the person who could do something to help and act on the things patients told me," she said.
As well as being part of a medical team in a hospital setting, another U.Va. nursing student added that there are more opportunities to practice – in clinics and schools and even on cruise ships.
Louisa student Katelyn Seay, who plans to take the CNA exam in December, said she hopes to continue her education, eventually becoming a registered nurse.
The U.Va. visit was helpful "to see what kind of environment we will be experiencing" and the opportunities the degree would afford, she said.
The group also participated in a class, "Introduction to America's Health Care System and Nursing." The session was devoted to public health and community assessment. Guest lecturer Jamie Leonard, who has a master's in public health, gave an overview of the areas covered by public health professionals, including the prevention of disease and promotion of health wellness. Those working in public health "look at communities and nations, not individuals, and they advocate for policy," she told the group.
Louisa student Aston Jessica Hernandez said she plans to continue her education to become an RN. She thought she might like to do research and at some point would "really like to get involved in international efforts."
The visit was an "opportunity for our students to appreciate the breath and depth of actual nursing practice," Zeiler said.
"The nation already has a nursing shortage that is compounded by a daunting nursing faculty shortage, so it's vitally important to let young people know what their options can be as a nurse," said Emily Drake, director of the Nursing School's undergraduate program.
"With an aging population that lives longer and with multiple chronic diseases, this country is going to need many more health care providers at all levels, including CNAs and RNs – with education through the doctoral level. One of the most exciting aspects of a career in nursing is the opportunity to continue advancing in the profession and to try new directions. We need nursing clinicians, teachers and researchers, so we're especially happy to help introduce these young people from Louisa to a broader picture of the profession that has attracted them."