By Caroline Kloster
When you spend 20 years in a family whose steadfast anti-dessert rule made sweet treats synonymous with special occasions, your taste buds learn that sugar means success. Standing outside of Yogurt Pump on Franklin Street, Carly Rittenmeyer smiled at her mother, who had treated her to a chocolate frozen yogurt. On March 3, 2020, celebration tasted sweet and smooth with every bite.
Earlier that morning, Rittenmeyer, a Raleigh-born sophomore at UNC-Chapel Hill, had opened her email to a long-awaited good news: she had been accepted to the UNC School of Nursing for the fall 2020 semester. After years of volunteering in hospitals and retirement homes, surviving the university’s “weed-out” classes like organic chemistry and turning down nights out to write application essays, Rittenmeyer had beat the school’s 31% acceptance rate.
It felt like the beginning of the rest of her life: one dedicated to helping others, powered by a valuable foundation from the No. 1 public school of nursing in the nation.
Not even a week later, Rittenmeyer gazed down at her iPhone as its bright light illuminated a more unexpected email. Through a bombardment of texts from friends and family, she skimmed its contents: spring break would be extended for another two weeks due to the COVID-19 pandemic, followed by online classes, for the foreseeable future.
The foreseeable future extended through her entire first year of nursing school at UNC.
Lack of hands-on experience
Rittenmeyer is one of the many undergraduate students who began their nursing training during the peak of a global pandemic. As COVID-19 swept the United States, healthcare workers became real-life superheroes, donning makeshift personal protective equipment instead of glistening capes. As classes pivoted to Zoom, however, nurses-in-training like Rittenmeyer worried about receiving significant hands-on instruction.
“My role as a nurse never felt more needed or urgent, but it felt like there was a roadblock in front of it. I wanted to rise to the occasion and learn how to help in the hospitals, but how was I supposed to be trusted to do that without any in-person experience?” Rittenmeyer said.
Each semester, the UNC School of Nursing immerses students in demonstrative skills labs for three hours per week and two clinical rotations in which students shadow nurses at hospitals in the Triangle area during twelve-hour shifts.
Rittenmeyer had zero clinical shifts during her first semester of nursing school.
“Nursing school is going to be rigorous regardless, so we were expected to know the same volume of material, just without the option to practice it in person. The anxiety that caused was insane. I just kept wondering if I would even be good at my job, and nursing is a job that you can’t really afford to be bad at,” she said.
Back in March, while Rittenmeyer savored every bite of her celebratory chocolate yogurt, UNC sophomore Carly Arendas clinked her glass in a “cheers” with her friends, who gathered around a circular table at Top of the Hill to commemorate her nursing school acceptance. Lindsey Humphrey did the same later that week at a steakhouse with her family and long-distance boyfriend.
It wasn’t until July, when UNC-Chapel Hill announced that classes for the fall 2020 semester would be remote, that their hours of volunteer work, lab internships and MedLife board service felt disposable.
“My dream of being a labor and delivery nurse felt unreachable when mothers couldn’t even have guests in the delivery room, let alone an extra student tagging along,” Humphrey said.
High expectations in an abnormal time
Similar worries overtook many college students as they adjusted to learning under COVID-19 conditions, and UNC-Chapel Hill responded with special adjustments tailored to decrease the stress students felt from unprecedented uncertainty. For the spring and fall 2020 semesters and the spring 2021 semester, all undergraduate students had the option to “Pass/Fail” any of their classes with no detriment to their GPA.
Because the nursing curriculum is structured differently than other undergraduate major tracks, the UNC School of Nursing did not offer a Pass/Fail option for students. If a nursing student receives lower than a 75% test average in any course, they must repeat that year of education.
“The nursing school was operating as normal while practically the entire rest of the campus was not. Not having any of the allowances that other students were afforded definitely made it harder to cope with everything going on,” Arendas said.
A spark of hope
As COVID-19 regulations in Chapel Hill slowly began to loosen, a spark of hope brought excitement and chatter to Zoom rooms. The School of Nursing allowed junior students to start their clinical shifts at hospitals in the Triangle beginning in January of 2021.
Rittenmeyer, Arendas and Humphrey now spend two days each week shadowing nurses and caring for patients, alternating between the maternity and psychology sectors of local hospitals.
Despite the unprecedented challenges of practicing healthcare during COVID-19, there’s one thing all three students agree on: their nursing school experience might have miraculously fallen on one of the most valuable times to be in a hospital.
“It’s so worth it”
Humphrey prepared for a long day as her pregnant patient—a 31-year-old woman named Anne—had her first contraction. It was her first time assisting with a birth, and she wondered if it was always this bad. Anne’s pregnancy was riddled with complications, anxiety about the pandemic and constant nerves. She didn’t like the uncertainty of bringing a child into a virus-ridden world whose leaders were still wrestling for control over their economies and health sectors.
After laboring for almost Humphrey’s entire clinical shift, Anne sobbed as she held her baby boy. Tears of relief, of gratitude, and of understanding.
“It’s so worth it,” Anne kept saying.
Humphrey cried with her. It was worth it. It all was. The confusion of a bizarre semester made everything feel different, but it illuminated every patient experience the students had. Every person who walked through the doors of a hospital in the past year was carrying unique baggage inflicted by COVID-19. To see beautiful moments of happiness and hope—not after the pandemic or outside of it, but in its sanitized and sterilized epicenter—meant everything.
“Being on the frontlines of a pandemic has made me extremely confident in the fact that I am going to be proud to be a nurse. There will be challenges in this field, but I’m going to return to my job every single day,” Arendas said.
Edited by Elizabeth Egan and Modupe Fabilola