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University of Maryland nursing students entering workforce to help deal with the coronavirus

Debbie Sahlin, nursing student, applied for an 'early-exit' program that allows her to start working immediately in the battle against COVID-19.

Graduation was less than a month away for Debbie Sahlin, a student at the University of Maryland School of Nursing, when she was presented with a choice she couldn’t have seen coming when the entered the school as a career-changing adult two years ago.

She could finish her academic program, graduate May 14, take her licensure exam and apply for jobs as planned. Or she could go straight into the workforce and join an overburdened health care system in its battle against the mysterious coronavirus.

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Sahlin, 50, didn’t merely choose the second option, an opportunity made possible by an emergency program the school announced Monday. She volunteered to work with coronavirus patients in the field hospital in the repurposed Baltimore Convention Center.

The single mother and onetime business owner donned a face shield, double gloves and other personal protective equipment as she reported for her first shift at the site Monday.

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“When I interviewed [to be an emergency staffer], I was asked, ‘Why do you want to do this?’” Sahlin said hours before heading to the hospital. “My answer was, ‘I don’t want to do this. Nobody in their right mind would want to sign up to work with COVID-19 patients. But it’s a moral decision more than anything else. And I went to school to help sick people, not healthy ones.”

"I don’t want to do this. Nobody in their right mind would want to sign up to work with COVID-19 patients. But it’s a moral decision more than anything else. And I went to school to help sick people, not healthy ones.”


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Demands on the health care system are expected to be so severe due to the coronavirus pandemic that Gov. Larry Hogan issued an emergency call for an additional 6,000 hospital beds across the state. Maryland officials reopened the former Laurel Regional Hospital in Prince George’s County — the site of more than 150 coronavirus deaths so far — to help fill the need, a move that provides 135 more beds.

An additional 250 became available Monday when the University of Maryland Medical System and Johns Hopkins Medicine opened the Baltimore Convention Center Field Hospital, a medical station licensed by the state that the two health care systems will jointly operate.

The University of Maryland School of Nursing pitched in with the novel program it announced Monday.

For the first time in memory, the school is offering qualifying students who have yet to graduate the option of directly entering the workforce, a state-backed effort to help ease the steep ongoing health care burden.

Under the program, dubbed the early-exit option, more than 150 students scheduled to graduate May 14 are eligible to forgo the remainder of their academic requirements and go to work for the University of Maryland Medical System, Johns Hopkins, MedStar Health and other health care systems in the state.

Those who take it will do so without becoming credentialed as registered nurses, a step most nursing students planning to enter the workforce take upon graduating from nursing school.

In an arrangement worked out with the Maryland Board of Nursing, the students will qualify as nurse graduates, a status that allows them, among other possibilities, to carry out a limited range of responsibilities in support of registered nurses and other health care professionals on the front lines of the COVID-19 fight.

Not all will choose to apply for such positions — some will opt for more traditional health care roles, a move that supports those at the front lines indirectly — but all who seek jobs via early exit will play a crucial part, said Jane Kirschling, dean of the nursing school.

“We are pleased to partner with key Maryland health care systems to support them in meeting their needs for nursing personnel during this incredibly critical time,” Kirschling said in a statement Monday. “The students opting into our early-exit option are well prepared and fully equipped to make a major contribution through their service as nursing graduates. I salute those students eligible and willing to serve under this unique initiative.”

Impetus for the program came when University of Maryland chancellors received a request from James D. Fielder, secretary of the Maryland Higher Education Commission, to explore the possibility of allowing May graduates of the nursing school, a state institution, to enter the workforce sooner than normal.

Kirschling and other state nursing school leaders asked the chief nurses of state health care systems, including the University of Maryland Medical System, Johns Hopkins Medicine and MedStar, whether they could use such an infusion of nursing help in dealing with the overloads caused by COVID-19.

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When the answer came back a resounding “yes,” Kirschling said, she and her colleagues worked with the state nursing board to develop enrollment criteria and specifically connect the “nursing graduate” designation to the current situation.

To become eligible for the option, students had to be slated to graduate next month and meet other criteria, including at least a 3.3 GPA for undergraduates.

The University of Maryland already had moved its nursing school curriculum online, including clinical courses that normally call for hands-on training.

Kirschling said the air of inventiveness behind such adaptations, combined with the urgency of the pandemic and the need for nursing help in the marketplace, created a perfect storm of conditions for an innovation such as the early-exit program.

Debbie Sahlin prepares to enter the Baltimore Convention Center field hospital on her first day as a health care professional. Sahlin, a 50-year-old nursing student at the University of Maryland, who was just about to graduate in May, applied for an "early-exit" program that allows her to go straight to the front lines in the battle against the coronavirus.
Debbie Sahlin prepares to enter the Baltimore Convention Center field hospital on her first day as a health care professional. Sahlin, a 50-year-old nursing student at the University of Maryland, who was just about to graduate in May, applied for an "early-exit" program that allows her to go straight to the front lines in the battle against the coronavirus.(Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun)

The academic year officially ends May 7, but those who qualify for, and accept, the early option, are free to apply for jobs immediately.

Kirschling said school officials are encouraging those who pursue the option to prepare for and take their licensing exams as planned so they’ll be ready to take the expected professional steps when and if the crisis lessens.

That is certainly among Sahlin’s plans.

The Clarksburg resident said that as a business student at the University of Maryland, and a business owner for many years, she never intended to enter the nursing field, but after her son suffered a traumatic brain injury when he was 11 months old, her focus radically shifted.

She enrolled at Montgomery College in Germantown to take the science courses required of applicants to the University of Maryland’s two-year Bachelor of Science in Nursing program. Her intention was to earn a doctoral degree in nursing practice and eventually start a practice in which to help people with disabilities.

“I never thought I’d be working on something like COVID-19, but this pandemic has turned a lot of things upside down,” she said.

The decision to apply for the job working directly with coronavirus patients did not come easily.

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Her first instinct, she said, was to make sure she would remain healthy to be able to continue caring for her son.

But training at the convention center has been so comprehensive, and the safety precautions on-site so exhaustive, that she feels “100 percent safe” dealing with the disease, as long as she follows the protocols.

Once a vaccine is discovered and the crisis abates, as she expects, she hopes to return to her original plan.

In the meantime, she sees learning what the crisis has to teach as part of doing her share.

“I do tend to thrive in chaos,” she said. “I’m going to learn so much. I’m looking at this as the best education that money can’t buy.”

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