The simulation labs at Shepherd University’s School of Nursing (image above) give students exposure to critical care, acute care, birthing, pediatrics and independent living settings in preparation for their hands-on clinical experiences.
School of Nursing At Shepherd University Leads With A Hands-On Approach
“Be the Light” — it’s the inspirational message displayed prominently on the walls throughout Erma Ora Byrd Hall, home to the College of Nursing, Education and Health Sciences at Shepherd University. This state-of-the-art teaching facility represents the University’s commitment to training the nursing professionals who are essential to meeting the health care needs of the local and regional community. The University currently offers nursing degrees at both the bachelors and doctoral level, along with a post-doctoral certificate. The Bachelors of Science in Nursing program was established in 1987, building upon the original two-year associate degree nursing program established in 1972 at Shepherd College. The University established the Doctor of Nursing Practice program in 2015. The local impacts of the University’s nursing programs are measurable. According to statistics provided by the University, two-thirds of its nursing students come from the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia, with 90 percent from rural areas and 45 percent as first-generation college students. The majority of graduates remain in the region.
At the undergraduate level, which typically graduates 70 students per year, the Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) program consists of four semesters of instruction in classroom, lab and clinical settings. Assistant Professor Lisa Zerull (Ph.D., RN-BC), herself a practicing nurse for over thirty years, talked about how the training to create a successful nurse is more than just the compilation of medical knowledge and hands-on medical practice: “We focus on teaching our students self-care strategies and resilience. It’s about creating a positive frame — getting into the habit of asking yourself what do you need to learn, what needs to be done, how can I affect change, and understanding that I am the owner of my environment.”
Multiple Paths Into a Team
Most students enter the BSN program as Juniors after two years of pre-nursing coursework on campus or at community college. The University also has pathways into the program for working individuals returning to school. The two year program is comprehensive to provide students with a solid foundation for entering a profession that spans over a hundred distinct specialties. Professor Zerull noted that “each of the four semesters corresponds to a level, with Level One focusing on skills and progressing to Level Four where we focus a lot on leadership — in the care setting, within the care team, working on conflict solving, managing a unit, understanding workplace culture, learning to delegate. We look to create people who are the pivot of change.”
Delilah Bedilion, a current Level One student, followed the pathway that included prior work experience. After several years working as a medical assistant and phlebotomist — and after starting a family — she took the leap to go back to school to train as a nurse. “My husband graduated from the program a few years ago and had nothing but good things to say about it. I’ve been able to see the difference that nurses make, both as I was working and with my own children’s health needs. If I can do that for someone else, to be there when a person really needs me, I can really make an impact.” Bedilion remarked that one of the biggest surprises with training as a nurse were the different types of questions. “It’s not just a yes or no answer that you can study and memorize. Each patient is different and you learn to evaluate each situation critically.” As Professor Zerull noted, “we can teach knowledge and skills, but nursing is really about experience.”
Heather Cook, a current Level Three student, came to the program after completing a two year degree at Frederick Community College. “I was looking for a career where I could make a difference, to help people in need.” Cook recalled that the transition from community college to a university was a big step up in workload. She started during the pandemic year, but “fortunately we were able to attend classes in person and went online later, so it wasn’t too disruptive. We were able to complete all of our clinical work in person too. The hands-one experience really makes a difference. For example, the blood pressure machines at the clinic were much older than what we have here [at school]. I was thinking how I would be able to use this but was able to figure it out. You also don’t know what kind of patient you’ll see when you walk in the room — or if you’ll need to call a code [for urgent assistance].”
Hands-On & Working Together
Professor Zerull echoed the importance of the in-person clinical experience. “You can’t deliver nursing care online — you have to touch the patient. For the clinical sessions, we have faculty members that start out with our students each morning, and they define the learning objective each day. But then the students become part of the clinical team.” Zerull also remarked, “you do see that the patients really appreciate the student nurses — in a typical hospital, an acute-care nurse is responsible for five patients and has other duties also. The student nurse will be focused on one patient for eight hours.” Bedilion, who as a Level One is a few weeks away from her first clinical experience, noted that “we have been practicing in the labs and reviewing case studies in the classroom. I feel like I am ready to go.”
The commitment to continual learning and a sense of community are also strong within the walls of the school. Professor Zerull remarked on the success of the new student-mentoring programs organized by the Student Nurse Association. Bedilion shared her experience after a few weeks in the program: “having a mentor is amazing and helps build that sense of asking questions.” Cook remarked that “the Level Ones are less stressed with this mentoring program.” Recalling her own decades of experience, Zerull remarked that it’s “difficult to work as a nurse without this sense of esprit de corps. The mentoring program instills this sense of responsibility for educating the next generation.”
The Nurse is a Doctor
The Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) degree is a reflection of the increasing complexity of medical care and provides the opportunity for nurses to acquire skills and credentials at a level similar to that available to dentists (DDS), pharmacists (PharmD), audiologists (AudD), physical therapists (DPT), and doctors (MD), with the aim of providing complex patient care in a clinical setting. Sharon Mailey (Ph.D. RN), Dean of the College and Director of the School of Nursing, joined the faculty in 2008 and oversaw the launch of the DNP program. “DNP is about serving the Eastern Panhandle community. There are not enough medical providers in West Virginia, particularly in family health and mental health, which is why we focused on these two practice areas. We started the program in 2015 and graduated our first students in 2018. We’ve had 21 graduates since then, all working in this region. There are currently 32 students enrolled in the DNP program.”
Brenda Johnston (DNP, PMHNP-BC PMHCNS-BC) is an assistant professor and the current coordinator of the DNP program. Her practice focus is on mental health and she emphasizes the implications of the shortage of providers in the region. “Substance abuse is a complicated issue to treat. You need to look at the biological, psychological and social factors. There are often co-occurring issues such as obesity, heart disease, lung disease. When you have the lack of service providers you face the reality that you can’t start treatment if you can’t sustain treatment. You end up with a lot of situations where people are in crisis and the only option is the emergency room, which ends up as acute care, a short stay, and then discharge, but with no real resolution.”
Johnston continued, “the DNP training offers the opportunity for nurses to fill some of these service gaps. It’s a pathway to chip away at the “iron triangle” of medicine — the conundrum of providing good access, quality care, and affordable care. The nurses are already there in the community, we give them the skills to provide the quality care that is lacking. As nurses, you look at integrative care.” Johnston noted, “with the right tools, you can focus on prevention and attack these issues at a lower cost. You can treat the whole person.”By Steve Pearson