Stack of face masks on desk.

Columbia Student Nurses Help Out on the COVID-19 Front Lines

April 27, 2020

Along with staffing hotlines and temperature checks, they offer patients compassion, a chance to talk, and more.

Ashlynn Lawrence, a Master’s Direct Entry (MDE) student at Columbia University School of Nursing, has spent a lot of time lately reminding hospital patients she is there to support them. She has had patients ask her to just hold their hands, which makes her realize how such seemingly small gestures can greatly impact those who are sick, scared, and often, especially now, alone.

“I always try to tell them that underneath all the personal protective equipment, I’m smiling, and I encourage them to do the same,” she said. “The comfort of a friendly face goes a long way.”

Lawrence, who will graduate in 2023 with a joint DNP/MS degree, is one of more than 200 Columbia Nursing students who are now helping out on the COVID-19 front lines. She has been working up to 40 hours a week, along with many of her classmates, as a nurse technician throughout the NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia University Irving Medical Center system. As part of a “float pool,” she is assigned daily to whichever floor needs the most help. Whether it’s an ICU or a step-down unit, she assists with temperature screenings and other aspects of patient care.

“Our students are doing incredible work on the front lines, with the support and guidance of our faculty,” said Dean Lorraine Frazier. “The decision to allow our students to work with COVID-19 patients was not an easy one. But there were students who felt strongly about assisting infected patients, and our faculty felt they were ready, knowing that they would be supervised by a registered nurse.

For those students who are not offering direct care to coronavirus patients, other opportunities exist, such as volunteering or answering questions on various hotlines, with faculty support. There’s the NewYork-Presbyterian (NYP) public COVID-19 hotline, as well as one run by NYP Workforce Health and Safety, and students also make follow-up telehealth calls to recently discharged patients, who may be dealing with everything from mental health to post-partum issues. Other students help our Oncology Care Initiation Unit by screening patients entering the hospital for cancer treatment and other medical care. In this way they protect cancer patients by first screening for the possibility of COVID infection and then referring them to our NP team at the Nurse Practitioner Group in Washington Heights for COVID testing.

Students such as Lawrence are balancing their coronavirus efforts with continuing school work, including a seminar focused on nursing during the pandemic. There they learn about what happens when hospitals become immersed in a crisis and how to identify and implement organizational strategies, including redeployments, rapid-cycle orientations and creating new services to meet the demands. The seminar also focuses on creative ways hospitals and providers can adapt to limited resources and emerging problems to provide patient-centered care. 

“This is a unique opportunity for our students to be part of an evolving, unprecedented health care crisis in which nurses are living the profession’s ethos of commitment and caring,” said Judy Honig, vice dean of academic affairs and dean of students. “Students are witnessing the professionalism of nurses as they offer individualized care, process the severity and complexity of an illness, deal with loss and grief, and maintain focus on their mission in an overwhelmed, and often chaotic, environment.

Honig added that nurses generally spend more time with patients than most others on a health care team, especially in cases where patients are critically ill and isolated, without the comfort of family. At such times, patients—often during their final hours—rely on the comfort of strangers, which is often a nurse.

“It's difficult to think about who I’ll be, both as a nurse and person, at the end of this pandemic,” Lawrence said. “But it’s amazing to leave work feeling like you made a difference. I can see my critical thinking skills sharpening, my confidence growing and my clinical judgment improving. I have also been exposed to many difficult ethical decisions during this time. Doctors are incredibly busy right now doing their job, which can’t always include meaningful patient interaction. Nursing at its core is founded on the principles of caring and support. We’re trained to be good listeners, and sometimes that’s really what the patient needs.”