SimLEARN staff step up to aid Veterans in COVID-19 fight - VHA SimLEARN
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SimLEARN staff step up to aid Veterans in COVID-19 fight

By Gerald Sonnenberg
EES Marketing and Communication

ORLANDO, Fla. – VA staff from around the country have been asked to work even harder as the pandemic of COVID-19 has continued to take its toll. The staff at the VHA SimLEARN National Simulation Center are no exception. Medical and non-medical staff alike at this facility based alongside the Orlando VA Medical Center (VAMC) volunteered early to assist in this battle against COVID-19.

One of the first to volunteer was Jane Robinson, MSN, RN, CEN. Robinson is a national SimLEARN clinical faculty nurse and volunteered in April. She is currently working at the Orlando VA Medical Center (VAMC) in nursing education.

Jennifer McGuigan, MSN, RN, MA, CCRN, CEN, was also a SimLEARN national clinical faculty nurse when she volunteered in April. After working for about two weeks at the Marion VAMC in Marion, Illinois helping with the uptraining of nurses going to the ICU if needed, she began working at the Orlando VAMC.

“I do direct patient care, working 12-hour shifts caring for COVID patients, PUI’s (patients under investigation for COVID-19) and non-COVID patients,” said McGuigan. “The ICU was the only ‘contaminated’ unit in the hospital but with the current upswing in numbers, the ICU has the critically ill and step-down COVID patients.”

An ICU nurse for 14 years, McGuigan said she has the skill set that is needed for many of these patients.  “After reading about what was happening in other cities, when the opportunity to help here in Orlando was offered, I felt it was important to help care for our vets in any way that I could.”

She just transitioned from working in SimLEARN to working at the Orlando ICU full time as she prepares for nurse practitioner school. However, while still at SimLEARN, she raised her hand on June 6 at age 50 and enlisted in the U.S. Air Force Reserve as a critical care nurse. Now, Capt. Jennifer McGuigan begins an additional new role in the care of our military Veterans in the 932nd Airlift Wing at Scott AFB, Illinois.

Nancy Wong, Ph.D, conducts research at SimLEARN. In April she began supporting the Martinsburg VAMC in West Virginia. Her work supports the Office of Emergency Management (OEM) Emergency Medicine and Critical Care (EMCC) and involves COVID-19 research into such things as questions and answers, privacy, infection control and multiple EMCC workgroups.

“Shortly after, I shared with OEM my Epidemiology projections that I was working on since February (on my own). I continued plotting and eventually worked with OEM on multiple VA projections in addition to continuously verifying data projections as submitted by a VA contractor,” said Wong. She has other responsibilities verifying, updating and coordinating with various workgroups, teams, etc. supporting the COVID Pandemic Taskforce and continues to do so as of today.

Helen Mills, MSN, RN-C, LXMO, AHI, was a nursing professional development practitioner and clinical faculty at SimLEARN when she began her orientation at the Orlando VAMC April 13 on assignment in the education department. The next day, she was already cross-training nurses for their new details.

“Once all of the incoming nurses were trained to work in new departments, I went to nursing stations and provided much needed education for the changing roles of the other nurses,” said Mills.

Then in May, she was transferred to the Vascular Access Team, where she continues to work with patients in all areas of the hospital. “My role is to assess patients and insert IVs, midlines and PICCs as appropriate. I’m surprised by the sheer number of nurses that are afraid to touch a central line, and I have been making it my personal mission to help everyone that I encounter to feel more comfortable with them.”

While she says it is a stressful situation learning two different jobs at the same time, as well as new people and environment, she says being away from her family is both hard and easy.

“It is easier because I have been able to get out of the house and talk with other people, while they (my family) have not,” said Mills. “However, the frightening thing about this experience is not the fact that I am regularly in rooms with COVID patients, but the concerns about bringing it home to my family. Per our facility requirements at work, I wash my hands constantly and wear a mask for 10 hours at a time. After every shift, I remove my jacket and shoes, to store in a bin in my trunk before getting into my car. Once home, I ‘doff’ in my laundry room - my clothes go directly into the washing machine, and I head right into the shower. So far, these efforts have been successful.”

All these individuals, as well as so many other staff across VHA continue to support VA in its battle to care for Veterans during this pandemic, often sacrificing time with family, and sometimes their health. The experience will be different for each individual, but all the deployed SimLEARN staff seem to agree that they feel pride and have met and worked with some great people; both staff and patients.

Helen Mills seemed to sum it up best. “It has been stressful, tear-filled, anxiety-riddled, and exhausting – but I wouldn’t change any of it … and while other hospitals were laying nurses off, the VA decided to hire – preparing for the worst possibilities while providing income for the health care staff that had their own families to feed. I have never been so proud of my employer (the VA) and my chosen career. For that reason alone, I would do this again.” 

If you have questions, please contact EES SimLEARN NSC Support

For more information about the SimLEARN program, please visit the SimLEARN website.

The VHA public internet site for COVID-19 training is