Okanagan College healthcare students step up to fight COVID-19

Students step up in crisis

For a class of Okanagan College practical nursing and health care assistant students, joining medical professionals on the front line to fight COVID-19 in their last semester was hardly to be expected.

But in mid-March when they were told the practical part of their program would have to be postponed because of the pandemic, students willingly stepped up to provide care to a community that needs them.

Jodi Kemp was one of the students who wrote an impassioned plea to her college supervisors appealing the decision to pull students out of their practicums and demonstrating the need for their skills on the front line.

"As soon as we got that email it caused us all to drop what we were doing and let’s start this right now, let’s get on top of it. I think pretty much for 24 hours that’s all I thought of, was how can we get back in?

"I wanted to make sure the letter I wrote involved the voices of everybody, so people that wanted to go back in, but some people also understood why we had been pulled, and I understood why we were pulled. It’s a huge strain on the staff already with the situation. It’s quite difficult with having enough protective equipment to have students in there as well, so I do understand both sides, but I felt quite strongly as well as a lot of my co-students that we needed to get in, get finished and get back into the workforce to help during this pandemic."

After careful deliberation with Interior Health, the college agreed to allow students to complete their preceptorships as long as proper safety protocols are followed. 

Completing the preceptorship now was an option given to students and not an imperative, says Okanagan College associate dean of science, technology and health, Lisa Kraft. 

But ultimately, every student in the LPN and HCA programs made the choice to return. 

“Some had to make alternate living arrangements because they lived with someone who was immune-compromised but they still wanted to continue, so they made different living arrangements so they could stay committed to their program. The level of commitment our students in both programs showed, and professionalism, and just this willingness to get out there and help where needed was very heartwarming to me. It confirmed for me once again that we’ve got the best of the best in terms of students."

Kemp, who is currently living in West Kelowna but calls Kamloops home, has not seen her husband or son since the pandemic started. It was an easy decision to make given the circumstances, but is a tough reality to live out, she says. 

Kemp is well on track to enter the workforce as a licensed practical nurse after graduation, following a successful 20-year career as a care aid. 

“I’m very grateful for the excellent training I’ve received on practicum and at OC, and now I’m just looking forward to getting out into the workforce and supporting those nurses who need us right now, who need the relief. We need them today and tomorrow they’ll need us, is the way I look at it.”

This pandemic has highlighted the importance of both roles in essential healthcare services, says Kraft. 

"Our health care aides - that role is the frontline of all healthcare. They provide the most direct support and long-term care to the people who live in those homes and receive care ... I often hear health care aides say “oh I’m just a care aide” or using the term “just” to minimize their role and I think that this situation has made it so clear that they are such a vital and important role. 

“It’s the health care aides that are out there holding the hands of the people and providing that direct care and putting themselves equally if not more so at risk [as nurses and doctors]. It just really shows and highlights how important they are to the healthcare system."

Okanagan College is currently running the Our Students, Your Health campaign to invest into the next generation of healthcare workers by building a state-of-the-art $18.9-million Health Sciences Centre. To learn more or donate, click here

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