Fresh from the classroom and their practicums, almost 50 Thompson Rivers University Health-Care Assistant students graduated early this spring to leap into the COVID-19 pandemic.
The students — 26 in Kamloops and 18 in Williams Lake — were in the final few weeks of their 27-week program. All they had left was a short preceptorship (like on-the-job mentoring); they already had developed the skills they need in the workplace, said Michelle Borgland, chairperson of the Health Care Assistant and Practical Nurse programs for Kamloops and Williams Lake campuses.
“Our students are heroes. I really mean that,” she said.
If the world hadn’t been overtaken by a pandemic, the students would have celebrated their graduation on March 27, with a mini-convocation and a big cake. Instead, they wrapped up nine days earlier and either started working in long-term-care facilities and other health organizations immediately, or were processed for provincial registration nine days ahead of schedule.
Graduates in demand
Kalen Hutton was disappointed about graduation because he was looking forward to the sense of excitement and accomplishment he and his classmates shared. He talks with five of them every day. He said it was stressful for a while, not knowing what impact COVID-19 was having in health-care workplaces or how they were going to get jobs when face-to-face interviews were being cancelled.
But his instructors were encouraging and soon he discovered employers are scooping up fresh graduates as fast as they can get registered. Hutton is going to work in home support, and already has a sanitizing ‘station’ set up in his car.
“Our instructors have communicated information whenever we needed it, that everything is getting taken care of,” he said.
“We (he and his friends) were worried about contagiousness. But after talking to other care aides and LPNs (licensed practical nurses) and facilities — there are procedures in place. We don’t need to worry.”
Usually, students start by learning skills and theory in the 27-week program. Then they get a practicum in health-care settings, followed by time experiencing food services, recreation management and other side-services to their jobs.
“The call was made for them to be able to leave earlier, about 75 percent of them had obtained successful employment even a month before graduation,” said Borgland.
“They’re desperate for frontline workers. . . . This week alone, I’ve had four or five recruiters call looking for me to share (contacts for graduates) in Kamloops and Williams Lake.”
Safety is paramount
In Williams Lake, Harmony Sigsworth had already been working at a long-term-care facility, but not with patients. She took the Health Care Assistant program so she could work directly with people, and plans to eventually go into nursing. She was just waiting for her registration number so she could change jobs. Everyone in the facility is being cautious, she said.
“Right now, we’re wearing face masks with the shield, doing extra sanitizing and making sure we’re doing hand hygiene even more,” she said.
Her class of 18 students was disappointed about missing graduation, but they are making plans to celebrate — once they can.
“All the girls are going to try to get together and go out for dinner or something. Once this is over and all the social distancing is done,” she said.
Stephanie Mosley did her practicum at Pine Grove Care Centre in Kamloops and is now an employee at the long-term-care home. Her concern is the elderly people living there who are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19.
“They have a strict protocol right now,” she said, describing a process whereby staff change in and out of their street clothes at the start and end of their shifts.
“I want to help people and I am sure at the moment they are in desperate need of any health-care workers. I want to be able to help as much as possible in a time where we have very little control over what’s going on.”
— Story and photo courtesy Thompson Rivers University.