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Nursing students offer message of hope to frontline workers: 'Help is coming'
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Nursing students at the University of North Georgia Gainesville train Thursday, Sept. 16, 2021, in the nursing simulation lab with a patient simulator. From the left the students are Zachary Johns, Gussie Rudin, Jessica Nelson and Alyssa Kennedy. - photo by Scott Rogers

Local universities have a message for the battle-worn nurses on the front lines of the pandemic: Help is on the way. 

Northeast Georgia hospitals may have avoided a new peak during this delta wave, albeit narrowly, but hospitals are still overflowing with COVID-19 patients who are sicker than ever, cared for by nurses who “cry everyday” and who can scarcely find time to eat lunch. 

In early August, the Northeast Georgia Health System reported a shortage of 510 nurses, and while some of those openings have been filled, its four hospitals still need another 466 hands on deck, according to Lorie Shoemaker, chief nursing officer for the Northeast Georgia Medical Center. Ideally, officials have said, the roster would total 3,200 nurses. 

If all goes well, though, nursing departments at local universities can satisfy that need in the coming months and years, as they train and graduate battalions of new students eager to join the good fight. 

"Help is coming, and these students are excited to get out there and be a nurse," said Carolynn DeSandre, dean of the College of Health Sciences & Professions at the University of North Georgia. "The motivation is very high."

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University of North Georgia Gainesville simulation coordinator Suzanne Applegate, left, prepares nursing students Thursday, Sept. 16, 2021, for a training session with a patient simulator. - photo by Scott Rogers

DeSandre did not immediately know how many nursing students go on to work at NGHS locations. 

"But I know they hire a huge amount of our graduates each year," she said. Just under 500 students are currently enrolled in nursing, and UNG graduates roughly 250 registered nurses each year, most of them undergraduates.

Nurses who graduated last May boast "about 100% employment rate," she said, and the vast majority of them stay in the North Georgia region. "So they're definitely filling the gap out there." 

Currently enrolled is senior nursing student Jessica Nelson, who is pursuing a bachelor of science in nursing and is on track to finish the program in about a year and a half. While the pandemic has deterred many students from joining the medical ranks, Nelson enlisted even after the pandemic began and has grown only more willing to lend a hand.

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Nursing students meet with University of North Georgia Gainesville simulation coordinator Suzanne Applegate, left, in the hallway of the nursing simulation lab Thursday, Sept. 16, 2021, during a training session. - photo by Scott Rogers

"It’s kind of made me want to do it more," Nelson said, who began working a couple of months ago as a patient care technician at the Lumpkin County hospital. "I work with COVID patients every day that I'm there, and I know it's such a draining time right now for nurses and other hospital employees, but these patients really need us." 

Brenau University is set to nearly triple the number of nurses it graduates from about 50 at the end of this year to 140 by the beginning of 2023, said Troy Heidesch, school of nursing director. At the start of the pandemic, he was worried that fewer students would want to become nurses, but it has been “exactly the opposite,” he said. Even so, today's nurses are being "tested by fire" and "starting to burn out." 

Heidesch said it is vitally important not only that universities supply more nurses, but that they make them more resilient. 

Some 150 of Georgia’s 159 counties are medically underserved, DeSandre said, and chronic nursing shortages have existed for years. 

On Sept. 1, the American Nurses Association, which represents more than four million nurses nationwide, urged the Biden administration to "declare a national nurse staffing crisis and take immediate steps to develop and implement both short- and long-term solutions."

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Nursing students Zachary Johns, left, Jessica Nelson and Alyssa Kennedy, right, work with a patient simulator Thursday, Sept. 16, 2021, in the nursing simulation lab at the University of North Georgia Gainesville campus. - photo by Scott Rogers

 The current scarcity can be blamed in large measure on a decline in retention caused by the pandemic. In other words, there appears to be no shortage of people who want to become nurses — the issue is keeping them around once they do. 

"It does get exhausting," DeSandre said, who is still a practicing nurse herself. "We're working some long hours and with limited resources, and it seems like the burden of COVID is growing, even despite all the wonderful efforts that folks are putting forward to help get it under control. So, you know, we've just added to an already existing shortage in nursing." 

Two additional pieces of the nursing-shortage puzzle have to do with a lack of educators and limited space for students to complete their clinical training. 

"Part of the reason we have a shortage in nursing is there's a finite amount of nurse educators," DeSandre said. "There's also a finite amount of clinical spaces for students to be clinically educated." 

In an effort to tackle that challenge, UNG piloted a new clinical education program with NGHS last spring, whereby hospitals devote an entire floor — called a dedicated education unit — to training nursing students and developing educators. The program "went over so phenomenally," DeSandre said, that an initial cohort of 25 students, three of whom are now working for NGHS, has grown into more than 80, and more than 10 units spread across three NGHS hospitals. 

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University of North Georgia nursing student Zachary Johns trains Thursday, Sept. 16, 2021, in the nursing simulation lab with a nursing patient simulator. - photo by Scott Rogers

The nurses coming out of UNG are "the cream of the crop," DeSandre said, "and they are truly the next generation of nurses that are going to make a big difference."

On the east side of UNG's Gainesville campus sits the Health Sciences building — the crown jewel of the $18.9 million expansion project completed in late July. The 71,000-square-foot building is outfitted with simulation labs where students care for robot patients that can blink, breathe, speak, bleed, and to top it off, give birth. DeSandre expects that "these new facilities will allow us to have a significant impact on the nursing shortage in our region."

Lanier Technical College has similar simulation labs and graduates about 40 registered nurses per year from its campuses in Hall and Forsyth. "We're in constant communication with the health care system and helping them meet their needs," said Lanier Tech President Tim McDonald. "We're ready to do what we can to support our local health care system." 

NGHS recently launched a campaign to hire "100 nurses in 100 days” and has hired 70 nurses thus far. 

“It will be a challenge to get back to more normal staffing levels given the national shortage of nurses,” Shoemaker said. “The reality is that nursing during the pandemic is extremely challenging. Our nurses have been at this for more than a year and a half without a real break, and they’re extremely tired. That’s why we’re asking — and they’re asking — for everyone to get vaccinated.”

When asked what her message would be to the frontline nurses who she will soon join, Mary Grace Henderson, a senior nursing student at UNG, said: "They are a bigger inspiration to us than they will ever know,” she said. “We got into this because we care about people. We care about our patients, but we obviously care about our co-workers as well. And we want to be able to help them as best as possible, so we're doing everything we can to learn how to do that while we're in school."