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Nursing alumni take on Alaska's health care needs

by Catalina Myers  |   

Student learns to take patient vital signs
UAA School of Nursing students Kathryn Hoke and Karen Anne Lee learn patient assessments, taking vital signs and giving medication in the nursing skills lab in UAA's Health Sciences Building. (Photo by James Evans / University of Alaska Anchorage)

A version of this story originally appeared in UAA Alumni Spirit magazine in April 2022.

Since the pandemic began in early 2020, UAA’s School of Nursing (SON) has graduated more than 500 new nurses into Alaska’s health care system. While Alaska was experiencing nursing shortages before COVID-19 hit, the pandemic illuminated the critical role nursing professionals play in our communities and the importance of having a local, accessible nursing education program in the state.

“Health care is never going away; we’re always going to need it,” said Jyll Green, M.S.N. ’04, Ph.D. ’16, medical and occupational health manager at Oil Search Alaska Limited and SON Community Advisory Board member. Green has lived and worked in Alaska for more than two decades, operating her all-nurse practitioner practice, MyHealth Clinic, before selling it in 2019. She emphasized the value of having a local university nursing program. “It is essential that we are producing our own health care staff from radiology to medical assistance — we need all of these professions to help move population health forward in Alaska.”

Green underscored the state’s vast and challenging landscape. She said many nurses from the Lower 48 are not equipped with firsthand knowledge of living and working in Alaska’s urban and rural communities. Many communities are isolated and only reachable by boat or plane, which makes recruiting, hiring and retaining nurses from Outside difficult.

“We have to grow our own, and I think when you live in Alaska you recognize that we have unique health care populations and challenges,” Green said. “It's important that we continue to provide quality health care programs, especially after the pandemic. I think we will see a large turnover of health care workers because of how much work this has been.”

Green said many nurses who were close to retiring left the profession during the pandemic, while those who were either beginning or mid-career ended up burning out due to the exhausting hours and mental toll it took to keep up with the community's overwhelming health care needs. She said COVID-19 exacerbated an already troubling national nursing shortage, which is why the SON program is vital to the state in providing highly qualified nursing professionals.

Nursing student practices giving medication
UAA School of Nursing student Karen Anne Lee practices giving medication in the Nursing Skills Lab in UAA’s Health Sciences Building. (Photo by James Evans / University of Alaska Anchorage)

While many programs in the Lower 48 halted during the pandemic, SON pivoted, providing nursing students with remote education and virtual simulations to practice the more hands-on aspects of their programs until they could safely bring students back to campus for smaller in-person classes. 

“I think it is a big highlight that UAA was able to successfully keep our nursing program going,” said Kristin Lutz, associate director of SON. “We were able to continue to work with clinical partners to maintain the pipeline of much-needed nursing professionals.”

Lutz said some of the most challenging aspects for the program during the pandemic was the ability to offer students the opportunity to participate in lab and clinical rotations and is grateful that as the university, the Municipality of Anchorage and the State ease up on COVID-19 restrictions, SON can resume a more “normal” curriculum for its students.

Additionally, throughout the pandemic, SON nursing students and faculty lent a hand through their participation in community clinics, offering to help with administering COVID-19 vaccinations. Lutz said she is proud SON was able to be a good community partner in many communities, not only in Anchorage but also statewide. Nationally, there has been an increased awareness of nursing and other health care professions because of the pandemic. The silver lining is that the pandemic sheds light on the critical role nurses serve in the community. 

It has been a long road since COVID-19 interrupted every aspect of modern life, including education. Lisa Ernest, associate professor and alumna of SON, said getting back on campus has been huge for students and faculty after being away for two years. While she is grateful that the program provided students with virtual options, nothing replaces the personal, in-person classroom experience. 

Instructor teaches nursing students
Instructor Amy Bock teaches UAA School of Nursing students to perform patient assessments, take vital signs and give medication in the Nursing Skills Lab in UAA’s Health Sciences Building. (Photo by James Evans / University of Alaska Anchorage)

“Just being able to be in the same room and bounce ideas off each other and have the students engage more fully in conversations is great,” Ernest said. “I'm really looking forward to teaching in that environment again and having students experience the closeness of their cohort.”

While both Lutz and Ernest reflect on the challenges of the past two years, they are hopeful for SON’s future and are excited for what is on the horizon. They are incredibly proud of the ongoing and tremendous work the students and faculty put into the program while also volunteering their time to help the community as much as possible during the pandemic. 

“I’m proud to be part of UAA’s SON and to see what we've done for our communities, what we’re still doing and how the students and faculty have stepped up to work together through this difficult time,” Lutz said. “We’re continuing to meet the needs of Alaska and the need for nurses in our state.”

Nursing student practices taking vital signs
UAA School of Nursing student Kate Slodowy practices assessment, taking vital signs and giving medication in the Nursing Skills Lab in UAA’s Health Sciences Building. (Photo by James Evans / University of Alaska Anchorage)
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