McKenzie Smit, MSU Nursing Student

McKenzie Smit, a first semester junior in the Montana State nursing program, stands near the emergency entrance of Bozeman Health Deaconess Hospital on April 1, 2021.

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The past year for health care workers has been one of uncertainty, innovation, exhaustion and quiet hope. For those just beginning their journeys in the field, it’s been a unique window into their chosen profession.

Nursing students at Montana State University, alongside their full-time colleagues, have seen the pandemic up close as they navigate virtual classes and firsthand experiences, including vaccine clinics and assisting overwhelmed and understaffed hospitals during the coronavirus’s winter surge.

For some, it was their first introduction into the world of health care.

Despite the uncertainty, students reported a strengthened desire to care for others and clarity on their future goals after graduation.

“Once the pandemic hit, I just wanted to graduate school and rush in and help in any way I could,” said Kenzie Smith, a junior in MSU’s nursing program. “… It’s weird but it’s like the pandemic has been such a big motivator. I guess it’s one good thing that’s come from it.”

Smith said her family was a huge motivator in her decision to enter the healthcare profession. Her great aunt had health problems throughout her life.

“She talked about how amazing her nurses were,” Smith said. “I just wanted to take that and be able to be that for someone else’s family.”

Surge teams

Alongside other students, Smith spent part of her winter break traveling to hospitals across the state that were understaffed and experiencing a surge in patients.

She spent part of her time in Glendive working 13-hour shifts at a nursing home, helping patients and the nurses with medicine and assessments. The patients had access to video calls with family and friends only and were feeling lonely and isolated, she said.

One bright spot she remembers was the day one of the residents got married to a woman in another nursing home on Zoom.

“He was super stoked. He kept going around in his wheelchair saying, ‘I’m a married man,’” Smith said.

Brent Hinchcliff, a junior nursing student, also spent about 30 days on a surge team. The Glendive Medical Center was at maximum capacity and struggling with its staffing, he said. He spent about two weeks helping patients who were recovering from being in the ICU with COVID-19.

“Some of these patients spent over a month in the ICU and were struggling to regain their strength and lung function,” he said. “… Participating as part of a surge team gave me fresh insight into the horrific impacts of the pandemic.”

Vaccine clinics

Many nursing students have been on the front lines of the state’s vaccination efforts, helping out at Bozeman Health or assisting with the university’s own efforts. In February, MSU hosted two clinics to vaccinate its health care providers.

The nursing students’ preparation for giving injections began early into their spring semester, with professors saying they were going to learn how to inoculate people so the students could assist distributing COVID-19 vaccines, said Sophia Thomps, a junior nursing student.

“It began on our first day,” she said. “… It was really exciting that we just started learning.”

Smith said the university’s vaccine clinic was her first time injecting someone with a vaccine, and she loved the hands-on experience. She was even able to vaccinate her childhood best friend during the clinic.

The students reported the events were a time of hope and excitement for themselves and their patients.

Jacob Martin, a junior, said he was overwhelmed with the hope and excitement he experienced during the four COVID-19 vaccine clinics he’s participated in after seeing “the impact of COVID on hospitalized patients and their families.”

For the past year, Martin has worked in the respiratory care unit at Bozeman Health Deaconess Hospital. He said the vaccinations have felt like “the light at the end of the tunnel.”

Hinchcliff said with each vaccine he administered, he knew he was helping to keep that person safe along with their friends and families.

“After taking care of COVID patients in the hospital setting, it was nice to finally be out doing something to prevent people from having to go through all of that suffering I had seen,” he said.

Nursing education in a pandemic

Nursing students have also had to balance their desire to help during the pandemic with their own rapidly shifting learning environment. Like many university students, some of their classes switched to an online format when the pandemic first hit.

“I feel like there have been no shortage of clinical learning opportunities, but our classroom learning has been impacted,” Hinchcliff said. “Like many other students, I don’t feel like I learn as well from digital learning.”

Martin said last fall was a difficult semester for studying nursing with many of the clinical experiences being held virtually.

“Nurses can’t be trained on the computer and hands-on experience is an absolute must for student nurses, so I’m grateful that we were able to have in-person clinical at the hospital this semester,” he said.

Normally, the students’ sophomore year would be spent working in nursing homes, but due to the impacts of the pandemic, that clinic didn’t happen. Many juniors reported this year was their first clinical experience, where they are doing clinical rotations in the hospital.

Many of the students also saw firsthand the burnout that has become prevalent in the health care field during the pandemic.

Smith said she saw the effects of the long hours and heavy workload when she was on the surge team in Glendive, where many of the traveling nurses were on day nine or 10 of working 12-hour shifts.

“There was definitely a lot of burnout and you could tell emotions were running higher,” she said.

Hinchcliff said he met healthcare workers who were burned out after months of intense hospital conditions and reconsidering their career choice. Many nurses were worried about catching the coronavirus at work and brining it home to elderly parents or young children.

During his time in the respiratory care unit, Martin said at one point the unit took up an entire hallway of beds and there were large groups of staff members quarantined at home. Due to the staff shortages, he said burnout happened fast.

“Seeing the pandemic firsthand move through the health care system felt like I was on a rollercoaster,” Martin said.

Thompson said the ability to adapt to shifting circumstances is a key skill to have as a nurse, especially now.

“We learn to adapt to change because it’s a very flexible field and a lot of changes come with that,” Thompson said. “I’m even more grateful to be a part of the nursing school during the pandemic.”

Career goals

Despite the challenges of the pandemic, students said their experiences have only strengthened their desire to become nurses.

Martin said he would like to become a nurse practitioner after gaining more experience as a registered nurse.

Thompson wanted to focus her work on infectious disease, but after more than a year of the pandemic, she’s less certain. She’s now considering work in a critical care unit or emergency room.

“Being a student during the pandemic has heightened all of our anxiety and I think that has affected me wanting to be in infectious disease,” she said. “… The pandemic has definitely solidified my wanting to be a nurse.”

Smith and Hinchcliff credited their experiences working on surge teams over winter break with changing their career goals. Smith said she would like to become a traveling nurse in places that need extra hands.

“I thought about it before but after the surge team, I was like, ‘that’s exactly what I want to do,’ ” she said.

Hinchcliff said his experience on the surge team increased his interest in becoming an ICU nurse. As someone who started nursing school in January 2020, he never really got to experience what “normal” health care is like, he said.

Like Hinchcliff, the pandemic will have a lasting impact on the nursing students, their goals and the type of nurse they become.

“Sometimes when I am in my hospital clinical rotations, nurses mention how crazy things have been for them since the pandemic started, but for me it’s all I’ve known — it’s become my normal,” Hinchcliff said. “I know that my future as a nurse will always be seen through the lens of the pandemic.”

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Liz Weber can be reached at or 582-2633.

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