NUS Nursing students join battle against COVID-19

NUS Nursing Year 3 student Choo Wen Ting drawing blood from a migrant worker

When the Ministry of Health reached out to the National University Health System (NUHS) for volunteers to respond to the COVID-19 crisis, Nursing students from the NUS Alice Lee Centre for Nursing Studies stepped up to join its serology team.

The NUHS Mobile Serology team undertakes serology testing of migrant workers at dormitories with higher levels of infection, as part of the Ministry’s strategy to test these workers for COVID-19. The test detects antibodies to COVID-19 from blood samples as a marker of past infection. Migrant workers with a positive serological test would have been infected in the past and would no longer be infectious after a period of isolation. For those with a negative serological test, polymerase chain reaction testing would be applied.

Dr Alpana Asurlekar, a senior lecturer at NUS Nursing, said 27 students responded to the call by the School for volunteers to join the team. The students, who are all in their third year, worked in groups of eight to 14 at the dormitories in Western Singapore to collect blood samples through a procedure called venepuncture where blood is drawn from the vein. Before they were deployed, the students attended a half-day training session conducted by the School on phlebotomy where they were taught to perform the procedures safely and efficiently, as well as on Personal Protective Equipment (PPE).

“It was not an easy decision to make and I’m happy to see our students stepping out of their comfort zone to volunteer with the serology team at the dorms,” said Dr Asurlekar, who has also been volunteering alongside the students besides mentoring them.

So why did the students do it? Accalia Tan is among those who signed up. She is using her skills well as she is a trained phlebotomist and holds a Certificate in Phlebotomy from Singapore Polytechnic.

Inspired by the nurses whom she worked with during her clinical rotation at Tan Tock Seng Hospital in May, she said, “I wanted to be part of the fight against COVID-19 too, and helping others is why I turned to nursing in the first place. I grew up very privileged in a country built by the toil of our migrant worker friends and I wanted to show my appreciation to them.”

“Equitable access to healthcare is something I am passionate about,” said Roselle Pineda, another student volunteer. “This pandemic has exposed and exacerbated many inequalities and I wanted to show this community I care and that there are ways to show kindness despite language barriers and differences in social backgrounds.”

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The students work in groups at dormitories in Western Singapore

Experiential learning at its best

Dr Asurlekar acknowledged the unique learning opportunities provided by this tie-up with the NUHS. “This is experiential learning at its best, where students get to draw blood samples from at least 50 patients every shift, and boost their confidence in performing venepunctures even before becoming a registered nurse,” she said.

Roselle, whose first day on 19 June was filled with “hits and misses”, agreed. “Student nurses are not allowed to perform venepunctures at clinical attachments, so this was an awesome opportunity to learn how to do so.”

Since then, her confidence has grown and she is able to work more independently without needing a preceptor to “troubleshoot” problematic attempts. “I could see the correlation between my confidence level and the patient’s trust,” she observed.

Another volunteer, Alekzendr Lam, said he learnt to exercise critical thinking while handling complications during procedures. Complications can arise for example, when one is unable to draw blood from the cubital area near the elbow and have to change to the dorsum area at the back of the hand using a “butterfly needle” instead. A patient could faint during a process and the students would have to manage the situation, prompting quick decision-making with safety as a priority.

Alekzendr, who also doubled as a private ambulance operator conveying confirmed and suspected patients, said his experiences on the COVID-19 frontline has helped him get a jump-start on his career and trained him to be a better nurse in the future. They also gave him a tremendous sense of accomplishment as he recalled how providing a little comfort to the migrant workers while conveying them on the ambulance went a long way in easing their worries.

“I’ve learnt that nursing is both art and science – skills and procedures are important but empathic and therapeutic connection with those under our care is equally essential in promoting their physical and mental wellbeing,” he said.

Jonathan Tang said that the volunteer stint provided him with purpose. “Throughout the blood taking procedure, I would have small talk with the foreign workers to find out how they are. Most of them felt anxious and worried about their jobs and I would encourage them that it would be okay. At the end of the day, I would feel a sense of satisfaction knowing that I have played a part in the process of helping the foreign workers take a step closer to going back to work,” he said.

“I have learnt that nursing is not an easy job and one that requires a lot of patience and resilience. It has also taught me that nurses play an important role not only in caring, but also being an advocate and educating the patient,” he added.

While this wasn’t his first time drawing blood as he was a medic in the army, it was his first time doing so wearing full PPE and setting up a portable phlebotomy station.

Entrusted to care

Dr Asurlekar said she is very proud of the students for being able to perform their jobs in the harsh and unfamiliar environment outside the hospital. “It’s been very satisfying watching them turn into confident healthcare professionals and performing venepunctures with the utmost care. They were proficient after a few withdrawals and gentle to handle each one of the dorm residents. Students are able to practise all their Entrustable Professional Activities such as communication, empathy, conducting procedures with asepsis, answering patient queries and explaining the post procedural care,” she said.

She added, “They truly embody the NUS spirit.”

The students will be volunteering until classes start in August.

By NUS Nursing


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