June 22, 2020

Class of 2020: Nursing graduate students become nurse practitioners in midst of global health crisis

RNs Caralyn Bencsik and Kaylene Bieleny adapt amid COVID-19 to complete their master's and nurse practitioner education at UCalgary

Since she was two years old, Caralyn Bencsik knew she wanted to follow in the footsteps of her now late grandmother Agnes, a rural nurse who instilled in Bencsik a passion for caring for others. She became a RN and works in critical care in the ICU at Foothills Medical Centre (FMC), but decided to return to university to advance her clinical skills and become a nurse practitioner (NP).

Then COVID-19 arrived.

While nurses are experienced in adapting to quickly changing environments, a global pandemic is arguably more than just a normal shift in focus.

"When the pandemic was announced, we were preparing to defend our MNs, but that had to be modified and we completed it via Zoom,” explains Bencsik. “It was challenging to modify our plans at the last minute, but everybody involved handled it in stride and made the best of a challenging situation."

Caralyn Bencsik

Caralyn Bencsik works in critical care in the ICU at Foothills Medical Centre.

Classmate Kaylene Bieleny, a RN for seven years largely on the cardiology/ telemetry unit at the Red Deer Regional Hospital, agrees. “Although Zoom was not ideal, as a group we were able to deal with the adversity the pandemic caused; as a nurse at any level, dealing with adversity is part of our role. From my perspective I would have been dealing with the pandemic as a NP student, or if the program was put on hold, I would have been dealing with the pandemic as an RN.”

Learning experience still highly valuable

Both Bencsik and Bieleny passed their MN comprehensive exam in March and prepared for their final NP placements — Bencsik's at her home unit and Bieleny’s in FMC’s cardiology unit, where she spent half her time with a cardiology team and the other half with the advanced heart failure team.

"I had initially expected the services to be busy, but it was eerily quiet,” says Bieleny, adding that speculation was that individuals with cardiac conditions were staying home due to fears around the virus. “This was something that many health-care providers were very concerned about: since the incidences of MIs and other heart conditions would not decrease, where was this patient population?”

Despite this, Bieleny says her experience was very positive, thanks to the physicians, nurse practitioners and other health-care staff.

Bencsik’s placement was also modified so that she spent most of her time in the trauma/neuro/burns pod of the FMC ICU. While she felt fortunate to gain experience with a variety of patient populations, she was challenged seeing critically ill people unable to have family at the bedside with them due to visiting restrictions. “I know how distressing this was for many families, and I want them to know that on the other side of things in the ICU, we felt that distress, too.”

Kaylene Bieleny

Kaylene Bieleny is a RN on the cardiology/ telemetry unit at the Red Deer Regional Hospital.

Instructor and nurse practitioner Kimberly Shapkin is impressed with how the NP students coped with the changing conditions. “Because the students were starting clinical when the health crisis was declared, they needed to be flexible and continuously adapt to the constant changes on the clinical units. They all did a tremendous job of rising to the challenges when there were so many unknowns about the COVID-19 virus.”

Bencsik says, “The nurse practitioner role in my opinion is a beautiful marriage between nursing and medicine. NPs have many holistic qualities that make them valuable members of the acute care multidisciplinary team. They offer much-needed continuity of care for vulnerable patients and their families, are leaders and advocates, are mentors to nurses and other health-care workers, are educators to patients, families, and the health-care team, are involved in research and promote evidenced-based practice and are highly skilled in diagnosing and managing acutely ill patients in the hospital setting.

“Finishing an NP program in the midst of a global health crisis is a once-in-a-lifetime experience and I took every opportunity to learn from the experience and help others.”

Bencsik feels the spirit of her grandmother as she continues her work. “I first told her I wanted to pursue my MN NP just shortly before she passed away and she was so proud, even telling the rest of my family — I think so she knew that I would have them cheering me on in her absence. I am very proud to be joining the NP profession and to carry on my gramma's legacy through nursing and service of others."