Julio Valdes didn’t always know he wanted to be a nurse. In fact, the little the FGCU senior nursing student really knew of the profession when he first entered college came from his love for medical television dramas, even the tawdry, soap-opera variety.
“It’s very different,” Valdes says with a laugh, of how far the fictional versions depart from reality. “I didn’t know what I was getting myself into.
“It’s really the nurses that are with the patients all day. You’re taking care of them and helping them out. It’s a lot of education. I’m really excited to see where it takes me.”
The vital roles Valdes and other FGCU nursing students fill has grown even more heightened this spring as they return to hands-on patient settings for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic struck a full year ago. Along with a return to in-person senior practicums in local hospitals, nursing students also are helping administer COVID-19 vaccinations through health departments in five counties: Lee, Glades, Hendry, DeSoto and Charlotte.
It’s just one of the ways FGCU students, graduates, faculty and others are making a positive impact on the communities FGCU serves near and far – indeed risking their own health in many situations – amidst the hardships and tragedies caused by the pandemic.
“There was a lot of information we had to teach them about the vaccine and the virus,” said Valdes, who has administered first and second doses of the Moderna vaccine while also educating many dozens of nervous – and relieved – patients.
“It did feel like a great honor, and it does feel like a responsibility to educate each patient and help them through it. A lot of them were really thankful. One woman told me she would remember my name forever. It was very cute. It’s been really rewarding.”
The volunteer work is being coordinated by Dr. Cindy Farris, an assistant professor in the School of Nursing, through her “Community and Public Health Nursing” class. Her students have helped administer vaccinations in the past as well, for the flu, hepatitis A outbreaks, and even in local jails.
But it had been long enough since any nursing students were sent into public care settings that they spent the first week of class this semester reviewing vaccinations. They also review the latest COVID-19 data to be able to provide patients the best care and information.
“Nurses are the most trusted profession. So the students really need to know,” said Farris, who holds a Ph.D. in education with a specialty in nursing education. “We have a strong program here. And people want our graduates. The students are very well-versed in understanding what is happening locally.”
Valdes, who is from Naples and is doing his senior practicum this spring at Golisano Children’s Hospital of Southwest Florida, was among Farris’ first students sent to a county health department in January. He and classmate Melissa Novak assisted in DeSoto County while nurses administered injections to start the day before both got to give vaccinations the second half of the day.
“They wrote me back and said, ‘Send both of them again. They were great,’” Farris said.
A week later in LaBelle, Valdes was given a room to see patients on his own for a full day. He administered about 100 vaccinations that day – about half of which were the second dose, which can often come with stronger side effects.
“It was exciting but a little stressful as well,” said Valdes, also noting the full protective equipment being worn. “We had only learned to give vaccines on mannequins in class. There were a lot of elements going on.”
As students, nursing majors have not been placed among the highest priority Florida residents to receive COVID-19 vaccinations despite their in-person medical assignments. But even with their own health at greater risk, Valdes sees in his classmates the same eagerness he has to continue taking the skills he’s learned in school – and experience he’s gained as a frontline worker helping combat a pandemic – into a career of caregiving.
“In some ways the pandemic did scare them,” Valdes said. “But I can see in all of my classes how excited they are to get out and help out and work. I’ve felt the same way, too.”
Support the frontlines
This is part of a series of stories spotlighting FGCU students, faculty and alumni making an impact during the pandemic.
By investing in a scholarship or a program at FGCU, you can empower more individuals like them to make a difference where it matters most — on the frontlines. For information on how you can help, call FGCU Advancement at 239-590-1067, or visit FGCU on the Frontlines to see more stories and give online.