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Community partnerships give USM Nursing students real world experience

When it was time for Hayley Quirion ’21 to gain real-world experience as a Nursing student, she had her pick of opportunities. Sure, the pandemic had closed a few options, but there were still plenty of places where USM Nursing students were needed to help out. She signed up for the class dedicated to Bayside, a downtown Portland neighborhood known for its diverse New Mainer population. 

A photo of USM School of Nursing student Hayley Quirion

University of Southern Maine School of Nursing student Hayley Quirion ’21 pauses for a photo before beginning an evening shift of work at Maine Medical Center in Portland. 

The Maine Access Immigrant Network needed help holding three Covid-19 vaccination clinics for elderly Bayside-area immigrants and refugees who desperately needed the shots but would find one of the mass vaccination clinics too intimidating or too far away.

At first, Quirion and her Nursing classmates stuck to the basics, translating signs into different languages and filling gift bags with hand sanitizer and masks while more experienced nurses handled vaccinations. Then, part way into the second clinic this spring, they began giving shots.

It was an 11-hour day, but worth it.

“You have clinical (classes) but interacting with the community is just completely different,” said Quirion, whose favorite part of the experience was chatting with patients.

“They were just happy to get the vaccines and they were happy to see us there,” she added. “They had a lot of trust in us.”

USM’s School of Nursing has nurtured community partnerships for two decades, now involving more than a dozen local public health, primary care and community service organizations. Each year, students choose a community to work with over two semesters and then address health needs there — providing Narcan training for the fishing community, for example, flu shots on the islands, or health screening at a homeless shelter. Students who choose Bayside typically work with elderly, disabled or low-income adults at the Franklin Towers apartment complex, with New Mainers at the city shelter, and with other local organizations.

The pandemic forced many of those community groups to close to outside help, but Nursing students still found plenty of places that needed assistance, including the East End and Reiche schools, where they spent last semester screening kids for COVID-19 symptoms before school each day.

Then there were Maine Access Immigrant Network and Northern Light Health. They had earmarked doses of their sought-after COVID-19 vaccine for members of the New Mainer community — people at high risk for the virus but who likely didn’t speak English well and would find it daunting to sign up for a mass vaccination clinic. They were often elderly, making travel even more difficult. The two groups partnered to hold very small clinics right in the Bayside neighborhood.

Enter USM’s Nursing students.

“The students are absolutely wonderful. It’s a real gift to us to have them there,” said Peggy Akers, a Northern Lights nurse who handles community flu clinics and, now, COVID-19 clinics.

Over three days in February, March and April, eight to 10 students manned the tiny clinic at the Maine Access Immigrant Network’s office on Oxford Street, where 50 to 75 elderly community members got their first or second shots each day.

“It’s just such a different pace (than the mass vaccination clinics),” said Su Sepples, associate professor of Nursing at USM. “Here you’re talking about people for whom you need to take a little bit of extra time.”

A photo of USM School of Nursing faculty member Su Sepples

Dr. Su Sepples, an Associate Professor of Nursing at the University of Southern Maine, says the smaller vaccine clinics for New Mainers involve “a different pace (than the mass vaccination clinics). Here you’re talking about people for whom you need to take a little bit of extra time.”

During the first clinic, students worked mostly as support staff, dealing with signs and gift bags and getting patients where they needed to go within the building. They also manned the observation area where patients waited afterward to ensure there were no reactions to the shot.

"They fit in where they needed to fit in, and they figured that out. That's exactly what the professional calls for today," said Sarah Lewis with the Maine Access Immigrant Network. 

Some multi-lingual students also served as translators. 

“One student speaks a very specific dialect in Africa (Kinyarwanda). She speaks French and she speaks that, and she was able to speak to a group of elderly women who came and she translated for them in their own language. We don’t have translators for that language at our usual clinics, so that was wonderful,” Sepples said. “Another student, a Somali student, she did everything from start to finish — gave the vaccine and did all the (patient) teaching all in their own language. For people to have a nursing student speaking in their own language, that was just fantastic."

By the third clinic, held in April, Nursing students were giving shots the entire day.

“We have our clinicals at school, but you don’t always get to give a shot every day,” Quirion “So this was good experience for us.”

Northern Light could have held the clinics without USM students by pulling nurses from someplace else. But the clinics benefitted from more than just their ability to handle a syringe.

“It’s different having the students there,” Akers said. “It’s having all this young energy and enthusiasm and excitement for the vaccine.”