by Jessica Langdon
OLATHE — Michell Summers remembers holding a needle with shaking hands as she prepared to give her first flu shot early on in her nursing studies.
But the more time Summers spent in clinical settings through her program at Donnelly College in Kansas City, Kansas, the more confident she felt in her skills.
As she prepared for graduation from her practical nursing program in August, Summers felt good about the future — especially after she and 11 other Donnelly students spent weekends for several months learning from staff and residents at Santa Marta, the continuing care retirement community sponsored by the archdiocese in Olathe.
Aspiring licensed practical nurses at Donnelly need 135 hours per semester in clinical settings over the 14-16 months of their program.
But those settings aren’t always easy to find — especially because Donnelly’s program is a relative newcomer in a city in which many nursing programs and health care facilities have already established long-running partnerships.
But a new bond between Donnelly and Santa Marta — both Catholic entities within the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas — proved this year to be a win for both.
“The connection was almost instant,” said Kerry Bledsoe, RN, director of occupational health at Donnelly College.
The partnership was suggested by one of the college’s nursing program’s instructors, and Bledsoe was impressed from her very first meeting with Ryan Grace, the administrator who oversees the licensed areas at Santa Marta.
The first set of 12 practical nursing students from Donnelly shadowed mentors in the skilled nursing and memory support areas of Santa Marta from January through April.
“I felt comfortable going into a Catholic facility,” said Summers, a parishioner of St. Patrick Parish in Kansas City, Kansas. “It makes you feel connected already, even before you meet the resident.”
She felt the common ground made it easier to strike up conversations.
Chet Surmaczewicz, executive director of Santa Marta, finds it hard to say who benefited most from the partnership — the students or the residents.
He loves the culture of learning and hospitality that Santa Marta exudes, where everything — from wonderful residents to caring staff to a faith-based environment to beautiful grounds — stands out to him.
“How could you not want to share that with young adults who are thinking about or working in the health care field?” said Surmaczewicz.
It was the relationships the young nurses formed with the residents, however, that stood out to Grace.
“They live here for many, many years,” said Grace of residents at Santa Marta. “You get to know them well. There’s a lot of wisdom. It just makes for some really, really neat relationships.”
Cheryl Myrick, who graduated from Donnelly in May, was surprised by how much she enjoyed working with the elderly; she now feels that is her calling.
“They have a lot of stories, and we gain a lot of experience from their stories,” she said.
In return, the nurses help the residents enjoy as high a quality of life as possible.
“Every day when you go to work with them, you want to give them a good experience,” said Myrick.
Summers learned to do that through her experience at Santa Marta. There, she talked to a dementia patient for the first time, gained confidence in her skills, and actually rid herself of the “tunnel vision” she’d entered nursing with. Now, instead of assuming she’s headed toward hospital work, she’ll be considering career possibilities in long-term care facilities as well.
“When you go into a room and you know you can put a smile on their face, that feeling is really good,” she said. “Interacting with them has really shown me how to get them to open up to me so I can help them.”
Part of a team
The Santa Marta staff welcomed the students with open arms as well.
Although students were soon passing out medications, assisting with showers, and enjoying lunch with the residents, the staff was careful to teach the students how to do everything properly.
“They taught us the correct way,” confirmed Myrick.
And though the student nurses hadn’t yet graduated or received their licenses, she noted, the staff gave them important work to do — and treated them with the respect that work warranted.
“We weren’t part of their team, but they made us feel like we were part of their team,” said Myrick.
There’s a significant need in today’s world for geriatric care, said Bledsoe, and practical nurses are well suited to bedside nursing at facilities such as Santa Marta.
Licensed practical nurses often also work in hospital-based clinics, doctor’s offices and home health companies. Their duties could include assessing patients, maintaining medical records, administering medications, monitoring vital signs, performing wound care, and supervising certified nursing aides, explained Bledsoe.
Students must already be certified nursing aides before entering the practical nursing program (which is an evening/weekend program, so adults are able to work during the week) at Donnelly.
Some students plan to work as practical nurses after graduation, and others plan to pursue higher degrees in nursing.
As seniors, the Donnelly students had already worked in other clinical settings before coming to Santa Marta. But they gave high marks to their experience there.
One student told Bledsoe this was one of the best rotations she’d had.
“I think they’ve just gotten confidence,” said Bledsoe. “It makes them feel like, ‘I can do this. This is what I’m meant to do, and I can do it.’”
And both Donnelly and Santa Marta hope the partnership will continue to thrive.
“When our students become licensed and begin working as LPNs, their wages double from that of a CNA,” said Bledsoe. “It is a life-changing program, and we are thankful Santa Marta has partnered in changing their lives.”