‘It’s something I’m going to remember for a very long time’ – Ashley Dooley, Alma College senior
ALMA — When Alma College senior Ashley Dooley goes to class, she feels like she’s living through an important moment in history.
That’s because Dooley, a nursing major from Downers Grove, Ill., is part of a group of 15 Alma students who are volunteering to administer vaccines for COVID-19 at the Central Michigan District Health Department. Thanks in part to this work, Dooley said, she can see a way out of the pandemic that has claimed millions of lives worldwide over the past year.
“Throughout this entire pandemic, at multiple points, I’ve thought to myself, ‘Wow, my kids and grandkids are going to ask, what was it like?’” Dooley said. “Just realizing that I’m able to prevent people from getting sick at this time, helping my community, it means a lot. It’s something I’m going to remember for a very long time.”
Allison Neyer, simulation specialist and clinical coordinator at Alma College, said her nursing students became involved to help alleviate a problem that public health officials have been dealing with since the start of the pandemic: too much demand for services, not enough doctors and nurses.
Thankfully, she said, the region has been able to care for people who have become sick with COVID-19. But now that vaccines are available, she said, demand for services has shot up, and the local health departments just can’t keep up.
“Administering vaccines takes training,” Neyer said. “It’s not something that just anyone can do. When we realized the shape of things, and saw we had a chance to help, we jumped at the opportunity. Our position is, ‘It’s all hands on deck.’”
Neyer said the Central Michigan District Health Department, which serves Isabella County and surrounding counties to the north, reached out to Alma College through a past connection within the program. The Mid-Michigan District Health Department, which covers Clinton, Gratiot and Montcalm counties, has also inquired about the services of Alma nursing students, Neyer added, but is currently holding off on having them volunteer due to a low supply of vaccines.
Every nursing student and instructor has had the opportunity to be vaccinated before giving out vaccines themselves, Neyer said. Students wear full personal protective equipment, including gloves, face shields, masks and gowns, when working.
Beyond assisting to put an end to the biggest public health crisis in a century, the opportunity to volunteer is also beneficial to the students’ education at Alma, said Laura Jean-Francois, an instructor in the program.
“This is a unique opportunity to practice a skill you wouldn’t normally practice much, because in a hospital setting, you focus more on IVs than you do injections,” Jean-Francois said. “It’s also a unique opportunity to work in a public health setting, as opposed to a hospital or a doctor’s office.”
Only senior students are helping to give vaccinations, Jean-Francois said. Prior to volunteering, they received a specialized training on the vaccine from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The training focused on teaching patients about what’s in the vaccine, how to ensure the safety of patients who receive it, and perhaps most novel — the proper way to handle the vaccine.
“This is very different from vaccines we’ve handled before,” Neyer said. “They have to be kept at a particular temperature, you can’t shake them and you draw them up in a different way. Even as experienced nurses, we instructors needed that education.”
Emily Long, a nursing student from Dayton, Ohio, pointed out that the experience is also novel in that nurses don’t typically treat healthy people.
“From our perspectives, it’s cool to be able to treat people who are taking a proactive step to not getting sick,” Long said. “You see people in line treating this like social hour, because for them, it is — they’ve mostly been indoors the past year and now they get to see their friends in line. One lady said, ‘I can finally see my grandchild again.’ It’s really touching.”
Save for a few minor side effects from the vaccine, Jean-Francois said, the reactions from people in attendance have been positive across the board. In one memorable instance, U.S. Rep. John Moolenaar came by one of the vaccination clinics to visit and posed for pictures with Alma students.
“It was really cool,” Jean-Francois said. “(Moolenaar) told us, ‘Go Scots!’ even though I know he went to Hope College. You could tell it was something that meant a lot to him personally.
The current plan is for Alma College nursing students to continue volunteering with the health department through mid-March, before moving on to prior obligations.
Dooley said that wherever she goes, she will continue to carry this experience with her for a long time.
“At first, you’re a little nervous. You’re being told that you’re going to be poking people all day, and you don’t know how they will respond. But now, it’s all smiles,” she said. “I’m so grateful for this opportunity. Our professors are amazing for the experiences they have given us.”