March 4, 2021

UCalgary Nursing students' clinical final practicums 'incredibly transformational'

Fourth-year students travel to northern Alberta for a clinical practicum like no other
Term 8 UCalgary Nursing students in trauma room in Fort Vermillion.
Term 8 UCalgary Nursing students in trauma room in Fort Vermillion.

Sometimes desperate times — like a global pandemic — call not for desperate measures, but for innovative and positive opportunities. 

For the first time in the history of UCalgary Nursing’s final focus, a group of six fourth-year students travelled as a cohort to northern Alberta for a clinical placement: two in Fort Vermillion and four, approximately one hour away, in High Level. Students applied for the chance to work rurally because it offered experience in multiple areas of nursing.

“That was a big reason I decided to go — the chance to practice in acute care, the OR and ER and labour and delivery,” says Zach Eastman, adding that another reason was seeing what nursing was like in different parts of Alberta as well as getting to experience what living in a small town was like compared to a large centre like Calgary.

I decided to come because I wanted to experience something completely new and I wanted to be surrounded by new cultures. Each shift I work with Indigenous populations and Mennonite patients which has been so great in expanding my knowledge and exposed me to new ways of viewing the world.

Dr. Zahra Shajani, EdD, associate dean, undergraduate practice education, says the placement with Alberta Health Services came as a result of “the power of dialogue.

“Both AHS and our faculty had a complex problem to solve,” she explains. Working with Fadumo Robinson, AHS’s associate chief nursing officer, the initial opportunity was for four students to travel to High Level, but overwhelming interest allowed the program to open to two more students in Fort Vermillion. “AHS needed capacity up north and we needed placements. It was a win-win."

“The close collaboration and the mutual trust and respect between our two organizations gave birth to innovative thinking," Robinson says.

“The idea of a preceptor cohort is a fantastic concept, and I am surprised we haven’t done it before. It addresses many of the challenges a student who is away from home may face. It provides opportunity for collective and supportive experience for these students during a period of their education that can often be very stressful. This project is a testimony to what can be achieved through collaboration and shared vision."

I think this is the beginning of new era of rural student placement.

Paige Hutton, who is located in Fort Vermillion, agrees with Eastman that the practicums are much different than others in the nursing program. “We work directly with the physicians, which has been completely new to me, and to our full nursing scope,” she says.

In addition to working more closely with the physicians, they both value being a member of the interdisciplinary team.

“Most of the staff know each other so it is a great opportunity to get a better look into the patients’ care plan and how we approach it as a team,” Eastman says. And like Hutton, he says there are many chances for RNs to become certified in advanced competencies because of the expansion of their practice. 

“Unlike the city where you maybe able to specialize in only one area of labour and delivery, for example, in a smaller hospital, you can be responsible for the whole process — labour and delivery, postpartum tasks, as well as neonatal intensive care, if needed, until further interventions can be decided.”

Another unique element to northern living has been the accommodations. “There are four of us living in a long-term care centre directly across from the hospital,” explains Eastman. “It is very reminiscent of living in residence at U of C in my first year of university and makes it really easy to get to and from clinical.

“One of my favourite things about High Level is on certain nights, you have a great view of the northern lights,” he continues.

Although neither considered working rurally before this year, their respective views have changed dramatically. “Working in multiple departments helps keep everything fresh for me,” Eastman says. “One of my career aspirations is to be a travel nurse, and so far, this has been a great opportunity to see what it is like moving to a new town with a different population and having to learn a whole new system. It can be overwhelming at times trying to remember everything, but there are so many opportunities to apply the knowledge I am learning and strengthen my confidence and skills as a student nurse.”

Hutton describes her time as being “incredibly transformational. Getting to work in such a small community, I did not expect to see the variety in spirituality and culture that I have experienced. And I also really love the northern lights! I often drive out of town so that I can see them better.”

She is hopeful to stay on in Fort Vermillion. "I have applied to stay here because I am learning so much each shift and have been so welcomed by the community. I feel surer than ever that I want to be an RN and that this is the correct career for me! Despite the challenges of the past year, I am so excited to keep growing and learning.”

Eastman feels the same. “Overall, I would say the events of the last year have only strengthened my confidence going into the start of my career. Watching health-care workers at the centre of this pandemic has really motivated me to keep learning as much as possible and to help wherever I can. Seeing some of the conditions around the world is very sobering and I am glad I am in a position to start working and contributing to helping manage and treat the effects of COVID-19."

The last year of nursing school has been tough with switching to online learning and limiting our clinical opportunities, but I am excited to graduate and start working as an RN.

Robinson is pleased that this placement has been so successful and acknowledges the participation of leaders like Angie Mann, RN, director, clinical operations for Area 1. “None of this would have been possible without the commitment of leaders such as Angie and the community of High Level. They worked very hard and went beyond the call of duty to make the students feel welcomed and comfortable. I am grateful to Angie and to the community of High Level.”

Read more about our students’ experiences.