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Accelerated college graduation to fight Covid-19: 'I get to make a difference'

As pharmacy student Halie Sheehan nears graduation, she is gearing up for a real world that looks far different than what previous D'Youville College graduates entered: She will be in a new wave of medical professionals fighting a global pandemic.

"When you go into pharmacy school you don't ever believe you could be a part of something this big," Sheehan said. "And then you're graduating and walking into it. I get to make a difference, and that's all I've ever wanted."

And it could happen quicker than expected.

The D'Youville doctoral candidate learned Thursday she and 30 other pharmacy doctoral students are eligible to graduate early. Degrees will be conferred as early as Friday to speed up their enlistment in the battle against Covid-19.

"This is everything you could ever dream of," Sheehan said.

The college's School of Nursing is also exploring the possibility of accelerating dozens of nursing candidates into the workforce ahead of their originally scheduled graduation date.

"This was really in response to what we have been watching happening across the world," said Lorrie Clemo, D'Youville's president. "There has been a shortage of not only beds and supplies but also, most importantly, health care workers.

"D'Youville realized we could do something about this in terms of getting our graduates out into the community quickly."

The students are expected to perform backup roles but can be pressed into bigger responsibilities as needed.

"Our students will come in as a kind of Team B," Clemo said.

Niagara University, with dozens of nursing students doing rotations, is reviewing the possibility of getting students graduated early, said Tom Burns, a Niagara spokesman.

Trocaire College's nursing students are already registered nurses.

"Many are answering the call and are able to work in the field now," said Trocaire president Bassam Deeb.

A Daemen spokeswoman said the college is using the pandemic as a teaching opportunity through online learning.

Pandemic ready

Christine Verni, dean of D'Youville's School of Nursing, said nursing students are ready to deal with the challenges of the pandemic.

They are trained and prepared to deal with infectious control issues, disease transmission, mental health issues and unanticipated situations, Verni said.

"Even though it's a highly stressful time, it's a really exciting time for students," she said. "They are eager to help the health care system care for not only people with Covid-19, but everyone who needs help."

One of the biggest challenges during any crisis are the different ways in which people deal with what they're going through, she added.

"The nursing students have entire coursework that focuses on the mental health of the community," Verni said. "I think that is a very important piece of this. While many people will recover fully from this, the anxiety that is being created right now will impact people in unimaginable ways in some cases.

"The students, too, are anxious and concerned, but they are all committed to providing safe care to the community. They understand how diseases are transmitted, they understand people deal with stress in very different ways and they are all educated that sometimes we are faced with things we don't anticipate."

Being adaptable to unexpected situations – such as the challenges of working in a pandemic – is a big part of being a nurse, Verni said.

"They know they have to be ready to adjust at times like this at a moment's notice, but being mindful that safety comes first for them, too," she said.

Dr. Canio Marasco, dean of D’Youville’s School of Pharmacy, said his pharmacy students have asked to work with Covid-19 patients, including at the St. Joseph Campus of Sisters of Charity Hospital in Cheektowaga. It's being converted to a novel coronavirus-only hospital.

"They want to help and are qualified to help," Marasco said.

Drug store risks

Sheehan is currently doing a rotation at the pharmacy at Sisters of Charity Hospital, where she delivers and discusses medications with patients before they are discharged. She also has an internship at a Walgreens drugstore.

"I get to see the different aspects of what's going on and all of the different challenges," Sheehan said.

The restrictions on visitors to the hospital due to the coronavirus has made it hard on the patients she sees, she said.

It's much more hectic at Walgreens.

"I think we've done hundreds more prescriptions each week than what we're used to, in the same number of hours. It's definitely a stressful time," Sheehan said.

She said the risks are much greater working at Walgreens than at the hospital.

"We're more on the frontlines at Walgreens because we don't have the personal protective equipment that we have at the hospital," Sheehan said. "We're more exposed to the virus than at the hospital, where they take more precautions."

Under normal conditions, pharmacy students have the last six weeks of the semester to complete coursework, Marasco said. But the students were willing to complete their last assignments sooner to get their final grades and graduate early.

While they won't have their licenses yet, they will be qualified to work, Marasco said.

"I'm infinitely proud of them," he said.

The school will give a $1,000 "graduation bonus" toward housing to students who accelerate their education to assist in the fight against Covid-19.

Clemo said health care providers she has spoken with are appreciative of the acceleration.

"They are anticipating a need for health care workers, with concerns over their current workforce possibly getting ill and needing additional workers if the trend continues as projected," Clemo said.

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