Continuing a Legacy: How Madonna Nursing Students are Excelling During a Global Pandemic

Nursing Students wearing PPE

LIVONIA, Mich. - On March 10, 2020, the State of Michigan recorded its first two cases of COVID-19 and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer declared a state of emergency. Four days later, March 14, Madonna University President Michael A. Grandillo announced that the University, located in Livonia, would suspend in-person classes beginning Monday, March 16, and move classes to an online delivery format. The healthcare landscape was changing quickly and Madonna’s College of Nursing and Health, which is perennially ranked as one of the top in the nation, was forced to consider new options for preparing the Class of 2020 for graduation. 

“Our first priority was the safety of our students, especially considering the lack of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE),” said Judith McKenna, D.N.P., dean of the College of Nursing and Health. “Programs began pushing toward virtual simulations (VSims), but I knew that wasn’t going to work. Our profession requires us to have hands-on experience, we need to be able to interact with the patients.” 

Nursing undergraduates are required to complete 720 hours of clinical practicums while graduate students require at least 500 hours to sit for their nursing licensure exams. Many students were close, but still needed some hours to fulfill their degree requirements. McKenna, the nursing faculty, and students considered the option to utilize virtual simulations to complete the necessary hours, but the majority felt that was not enough.

“VSims allow you to talk through a patient scenario, but you aren’t physically practicing the skill. Nothing can replace the in-person experience a clinical provides. It’s one thing to tell a computer to insert an IV or give a shot, it’s another to actually locate a vein or interact with a given patient and understand their needs,” added McKenna.

Healthcare Partnerships

Fortuitously, a pair of local partners emerged to help fill the gap: Optalis Healthcare and St. Mary Mercy Hospital - Livonia. Through these two community partners, the Madonna University Class of 2020 students were able to fulfill their clinical hours, and the program is sending 306 nurses into the field to continue to not only help patients battle the novel coronavirus, but also to serve in other nursing roles.

“These partnerships were a work of divine intervention,” stated McKenna. “It was a matter of having the right people in the right place at the right time. Without these partnerships I’m not sure what we would have done.”

At Optalis’ Evergreen location, the site of a COVID-19 unit, Madonna University took the opportunity to provide patient care in a section of the unit with students in Madonna’s Accelerated Bachelor of Science of Nursing (ABSN) program as well as graduate students. They were able to staff a floor and continue their hands-on training in an ever-changing environment. 

The partnership has been developed by a Madonna ‘08 alumna and adjunct faculty member in graduate nursing, Marianne Vesterfelt, MSN, ANP-BC, ACHPN who is the corporate clinical services director at Optalis Healthcare. While she has always partnered with her alma mater to help place students, she had a unique opportunity when COVID-19 shut many doors for clinical students. 

“When the pandemic came on, I started thinking of all the students who would be graduating and starting a career in this era of a pandemic,” said Vesterfelt. “I wanted to get them experience in infection control and you can’t gain that experience anywhere else but in the field. The Madonna program is known for the care they teach their students and this was a perfect blend of students and intense submersion into reality.”

The partnership, however, would not have been possible without the approval of Optalis CEO Raj Patel. Luckily, as Vesterfelt added “He was excited about the opportunity and grabbed on right away. He was very supportive of the idea and we hope it will bridge a relationship going forward between all of the Optalis locations and Madonna Nursing.”

Optalis’ Evergreen location was opening a COVID-19 unit to assist the community and local hospitals with patients, but they were short-staffed and needed a solution. Madonna nursing students were able to fill the gap in providing the care needed,while also giving students the necessary hours to graduate. Initially, Madonna was staffing the unit around the clock, but has since scaled back to 20 hours per day. 

Invaluable Clinical Experience

“This opportunity has been invaluable for our students,” said Tracey Chan Ph.D., ANP-BC, chairperson of Graduate Nursing at Madonna. “We have been able to get experience for nearly 40 students from our ABSN Class of 2020 to our graduate students and even some first-time clinical students have received the opportunity to gain valuable patient care experience. Because of the uniqueness of the facility, students are able to gain some more hands-on experience than they could normally in a hospital setting and we have seen tremendous growth in those who have been here. They have grown in their ability to work with patients, think critically and to assess changes in patient symptoms.”

McKenna has guided 28 students at the Optalis location with undergraduate students learning under the direction of Madonna faculty. 

“The students have been impressive,” added Vesterfelt. “They have been eager to learn and are excited to help. Being around them and feeling that excitement of being a new nurse has been awesome for all of us who get to work with them. They have been incredibly sound in their skills and infection control protocols. Dean McKenna is one-in-a-million and did not skip a beat jumping in and showing the students how to become a nurse.”

McKenna, along with three students sat down to discuss their experiences at Optalis and why they elected to take part in the unique opportunity. You can watch Part One and Part Two of the Interview below.

Part One of the Interview

In addition to the Optalis partnership, St. Mary Mercy Hospital-Livonia stepped up to provide an avenue for more students to secure their training hours. Located on the same square mile as the University, the partnership between the two was a seamless one. The partnership started last fall with the goal to give students clinical hours at the hospital. In return, the hospital could utilize University resources, such as the simulation lab, to help its employees. 

Gov. Whitmer’s executive order, in late March, allowed students to enter the hospitals again. At that time, positions were added to the St. Mary Mercy student nursing program to accommodate the graduating students from Madonna and those who needed to get their immersion hours. 

“This is a great partnership, especially for Madonna graduates,” said St. Mary Mercy Director of Nursing Practice and Education Tashira Winston, MSN, RN. “We have saved some of our open RN positions for them to transition into full time nursing roles upon graduation. Our goal is to hire our students that have trained with us.”

Part Two of the Interview

Madonna University is currently providing care for 20 hours per day at Optalis while the 18 Madonna students working at St. Mary Mercy are covering three, 12-hour shifts per week. 

Jacob Heins, an ABSN student, who finished his degree thanks to the Optalis partnership said, “Some of the practical experience of working with the patients, being there for the patients, and weighing how you can act with the patient is so influential for nurses to have, and I feel lucky that when I graduate I will have had this experience.”

COVID-19 Impact on nursing care

May 12, 2020 marks the 200th birthday of Florence Nightingale, known as the founder of modern nursing. International Nurses Day also falls on May 12 this year, which is the culmination of “Nurses Week.” In her honor, 2020 was deemed the “Year of the Nurse.” Little did anyone know how important nurses would be. 

With the many technological advances over the years, the nursing profession has seen numerous changes from computerized charts to translation machines. McKenna has seen the older and younger generations of nurses adapt and truly understand how to show complete and compassionate care for a patient.

“I feel like we have finally bridged the generation gap in nursing,” said McKenna. “I envisioned with the “Year of the Nurse” that technology would be at the forefront, including how far nursing has come in that realm. But since the onset of COVID-19, nurses have had to do everything with minimal technology and I have witnessed nurses embrace the core of our practice which is caring for the whole patient.”

“There’s something about going into these patient rooms with individuals who can’t see their families,” said Madonna graduate nursing student Marisa Ventura who worked as a preceptor at Optalis. “They are waiting for us to come into the room and be their person for endless days. It’s just something that needs to be experienced to understand it and breeds a level of empathy you may not experience otherwise.”

In the current climate, nurses and healthcare professionals are donning hazmat-type suits that make communication at times challenging. However, with McKenna at the helm, the Madonna nurses are showing compassionate care to individuals who are forced to be isolated; away from family and friends. 

“Dr. McKenna did a great job of leading by example,” said Megan Ventura, a 2020 ABSN graduate who completed her hours at Optalis. “Watching her interact with the patients and lead by example was such a good learning experience because I felt like it set the tone for us to follow suit and really act compassionately with these patients. It is an example I try to emulate with all of my patients and I am just happy I had the opportunity to learn from her and participate in this experience.” 

While the students recognized McKenna’s leadership in care practice, the dean also had glowing reports for her students.

“I saw so much in our students, their interaction with the patients and how much they meant to the patients. I finally saw nursing the way I feel nursing actually is. We don’t need all the technology, we just need ourselves and we need to remember there are people in the beds and they need our care. That is what I witnessed this semester. ”

Who knew that in a year in which we can hold meetings with individuals across the world from the phone in our hands, that the biggest difference being made in our hospitals across the globe is something that Florence Nightingale began more than 175 years ago - caring for all aspects of the patient, not just their physical well-being.

Madonna University College of Nursing and Health

Established in 1962, Madonna University’s nursing program has earned a reputation for excellence in nursing education. Accredited by the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education, Madonna’s nursing program also has received continuous approval of the Michigan Board of Nursing. More than 4,500 nurses across the country call Madonna University their alma mater. Madonna’s College of Nursing and Health boasts a 99 percent placement rate for nurse graduates. Madonna offers bachelor’s and master’s degrees in nursing and nursing specialties, as well as an accelerated bachelor’s degree and a doctor of nursing practice degree.

Optalis Healthcare

With decades of experience, Optalis Healthcare is a proven leader in the industry. Combining their expertise in geriatric care with their profound compassion has led to providing exceptional care across the Metro Detroit area. Each multidisciplinary team in their state-of-the-art Health & Rehabilitation Centers, provides its residents, families, and guests the highest quality of service on each encounter. Outstanding individualized care is delivered in accordance with the Optalis Healthcare performance standards of education, nurture, respect, integrity, compliance, and honesty.

St. Mary Mercy Hospital Livonia

St. Mary Mercy Livonia, located at 36475 Five Mile Road at Levan in Livonia, Michigan, provides acute-care medical and health services to our community. The hospital was founded and opened by the Felician Sisters in 1959. St. Mary Mercy Hospital is a member of Saint Joseph Mercy Health System, a health care organization serving six counties in southeast Michigan with a combined 1,726 licensed beds, more than 14,000 employees and nearly 2,700 physicians. Saint Joseph Mercy Health System is part of Trinity Health, one of the largest multi-institutional Catholic health care delivery systems in the nation, serving communities in 21 states with 86 hospitals, 128 continuing care facilities and home health and hospice programs.

St. Mary Mercy Livonia is a community-based hospital, providing comprehensive and compassionate care throughout its 304-bed hospital and outpatient services.