Emory Nursing students administer COVID-19 vaccines

By Keith Farner | March 15, 2021

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J. Michael Moore
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Being a student nurse who has the opportunity to give the COVID-19 vaccine is a historic learning experience that Karla Lima will keep with her for a long time. But giving it to a retired nurse who in her career was part of the polio vaccine rollout is something that lights up Lima’s smile. 

That was Lima’s reaction when she discussed being the nurse to administer the vaccine to Doris Davidson, who received the shot through the Hall County Health Department in Gainesville. Lima was part of 120 students from Emory’s Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing to participate in COVID vaccination clinics around the state in recent weeks. Lima and some of her classmates have participated in three clinics to more than fulfill their clinical hour requirement for the semester. 

“I felt honored to do something like that for her,” said Lima, a junior and second semester nursing student. “I know she saw herself in our shoes and I just wanted it to be as painless as possible, I wanted it to come out perfectly so that she could see that we’re up to her level. It just made everything fall into perspective because sometimes we forget that what we’re doing is so important. We don’t see how big it is, we don’t see how many people are impacted and her talking to us about that really set it up for the whole day for me. I was really excited.” 

That’s exactly the message Dr. Quyen Phan, an Assistant Clinical Professor at Emory, said she hopes the students take from the vaccination clinics. 

“To be honest with you, even if they just participate in the vaccine clinic, they would achieve the objective of my course,” Phan said. “The role of the nurse in public health, nursing’s role in preparedness, for any kind of emergency preparedness, working with community based and public health agencies, working in interdisciplinary teams, communication, risk communication, patient education. There are so many lessons to be learned here.”

Dr. Lisa Raman was there with Lima and other student nurses at the Hall County clinic, and recalls how Davidson’s message resonated. Raman, a Placement Coordinator/Clinical Instructor in the School of Nursing, said the atmosphere was unusually emotionally charged that day for a vaccine clinic because everyone who came in was thankful, and seemed almost exuberant when it was their turn to receive the vaccine. Raman said the unique camaraderie between the nurses, health department staff, national guard and other volunteers was a memorable experience. 

“The knowledge that they are all part of something much bigger than protecting their individual health was so apparent,” she said. “The students were told going into this voluntary experience that it is the greatest public health threat of our collective lifetimes, and that they are helping to build herd immunity, eradicate this awful pandemic and save lives.” 

It was an ideal environment to give the vaccine as well, Raman said, because the recipients of the vaccine understood the gravity of the global pandemic.

“The people who came in to receive their vaccines also understood, and didn’t hesitate to take on any risk of side effects and uncertainty that may be associated with the vaccine to prevent catching COVID themselves, and to protect others,” Raman said. “They expressed that to the student nurses, thanked them profusely for playing such a pivotal role in the community.” 

In late 2020, when Phan realized a vaccine would be released soon, she looked for opportunities for students to be involved in the vaccine administration from a public health standpoint because of her history working in that field, and because she knew there is a dwindling workforce in nursing. 

The experience has broadened the career horizons for several students. Many are focused on acute care nursing that they didn’t realize what existed in public health nursing.

“I’ve already talked with several students who got to speak with the public health nurses that also staffed the vaccine clinic alongside them and they were so surprised about different roles nurses play in public health,” Phan said.

Lima is in that group, and has reconsidered her career path because of the vaccination clinic experience. 

“When I started out this semester, I wasn’t thinking about public health at all,” she said. “I was thinking about something completely different, and now that I’ve been doing this, I can see myself in something like public health. I can see myself going in and doing this, not just here, but in another country or any other place. I think it opened my eyes to something I can do in the future.”

The vaccine demand has been impressive, and even surprised Lima and her classmates Maria Ramirez, Catherine Domiter, Soyoung Yoo and Claire Parrish. On a recent Tuesday during an 11-hour shift at the clinic, the quartet vaccinated 500 people. 

“It’s a unique experience and I’m grateful to do this,” Ramirez said. “A lot of patients were excited to receive the vaccine and be able to take the first step in all of us moving forward.” 

The polio vaccine rollout helped society move forward, and these nurses, their instructors and recipients like Davidson look for that to happen again.

“She saw the nursing students doing the mass vaccinations for COVID-19 and she was touched,” Phan said. “That was a very, very sweet story that came full circle of the role of the nurse being in the forefront of public health efforts to protect the health of the population. That’s exactly what our nursing students are doing.”