By Dedra Cordle
Mariela Ortega says she always feels a little in awe whenever she sees her aunts.
Older than the teenager by “just a little bit,” to her they are a living example of perseverance.
“They were premature babies, born three months early,” she said. “They spent the first few months of their lives in the hospital just trying to hang on.”
But they didn’t just hang on – they thrived. Ortega said she credits their turnaround to both their fighting spirits and the skill and the care of the medical staff that took care of them.
“Those doctors and nurses are some of the best examples of people in the medical profession,” she said. “They were with them all the way and now my aunts have grown into healthy young adults.”
Inspired by her aunts and those dedicated professionals, Ortega said she had her heart set on a career in the medical field since she was a child.
“I knew I wanted to help people,” she said. “I knew I wanted to try to make a difference in their lives.”
Wanting to pursue a career in neo-natal nursing, Ortega enrolled in the pre-nursing program at the South-Western Career Academy her junior year. She said it was wonderful being around like-minded individuals and they connected almost instantly despite coming from four different high schools. It turned out that the bond they formed helped them get through the hardest year of their lives – one fraught with the hardships of virtual learning, national politics that seeped into their everyday living, the overwhelming sense of grief due to the pandemic and doubts about their ability to work in the medical field.
It was November of 2019 and the juniors in the pre-nursing program were looking forward to two things – winter break and the state tested nursing assistant certification exams that were to be held in the coming months. Little, if any, attention was given to a new virus that appeared to be spreading in Wuhan, China.
“It seemed so far away from us,” said Juliet Fregoso. “I think a lot of us thought it was just like a little sickness that would go away soon.”
In the weeks that followed, the students grew more concerned with this novel coronavirus but it didn’t occupy too much of their time. Instead, their worries had shifted to the sudden departure of their instructor and the ramifications of her absence.
“Our substitute instructor tried so hard to help us with the material,” said Hannah DeVine, “but it was a lot more textbook work than that hands-on learning that is needed for this pathway.”
Despite feeling a little adrift, the juniors pressed on with material to prepare for those important state exams. Then came the virus’s introduction to the country, and then to the state. On March 14, 2020, shortly after the first case of COVID-19 was announced in Ohio, Governor Mike DeWine ordered that all K-12 schools close their doors to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.
With virtual learning in place, several students had trouble adapting to the new medium but figured it would only be a temporary measure.
“I think they said it would only be for three weeks,” said Fregoso.
But those three weeks were extended and business closures throughout the state were announced – some of the students’ parents were impacted financially by the loss. Knowing that receiving their STNA certification not only meant meeting the requirement for their pathway but also additional income, they hoped that those exams would not be canceled too.
Then they were.
“It was very upsetting,” said Kendall Weber. “When you’re in a career technical program, you need that certification and you need that valuable experience. Having that taken away from us really hurt and put us behind.”
Before they knew it, the school year was over and the summer where they were supposed to be working in nursing homes was lost. They held on to hope that things would be better their senior year.
The 2020-21 school year started virtually, much to the displeasure of many.
“I hated learning virtually,” said Fregoso. “I’m usually a very out there person, but when I was in front of the computer I would just close up.”
The one bright spot, they said, was the arrival of instructor Becky McNeil, a registered nurse with close to two decades of experience working in an intensive care unit. While she also had more than a decade of experience as a clinical educator, it was her first time teaching at the high school level.
McNeil said that when she took the position in June, she was determined to not only teach them the basic skills of the medical profession but about the importance of self-care as well.
“There’s a running joke in the field that the only people nurses and doctors don’t take care of is themselves,” said McNeil. “I wanted them to come into their careers with a new outlook of how important it is to take care of your own mental health.”
She said those lessons came in handy this year, especially as several of her students expressed doubt as to whether the medical field was the path for them.
Weber said it has been mentally taxing to watch the news and see the footage of doctors and nurses on the frontlines.
“It sticks in your brain,” she said. “It makes you question whether you could do what they are doing.”
It was a feeling expressed by many seniors in the program.
With the encouragement of McNeil, they didn’t keep those doubts to themselves. She allowed them room to share their conflicting feelings. One student said that the current environment in the country made her question whether she could even be a nurse because she wasn’t sure she liked people anymore.
“I reminded all of them that this field has so many different avenues to explore,” said McNeil. “If they don’t want to have those daily and close interactions with people there are fields of study where you don’t have to do that.”
She then challenged them to think of other career pathways they could envision working in – they all circled back to the medical field.
“I think we’re even more dedicated than ever to make a difference in this world,” said DeVine.
Though some doubts still persist, the students have been able to attend labs five days a week where they have been learning the manual and timed skills that will be included on the STNA certification exam.
“They’re coming up soon so it’s getting a little more intense,” said Fregoso. “But I think we’re all glad that we will be able to have this opportunity.”
McNeil said this year has been hard and tumultuous for everyone – she spent six months working with COVID-19 patients in a long-term care facility and saw firsthand its devastation – but it has proven to be one of the best lessons her students could learn about working in the medical field.
“There is always something new to us,” she said.
“It is unpredictable and it is always changing and sometimes it’s sad and scary, but you have to be able to adapt to what is happening.”