When I first started my Mental Health Nursing Degree in 2018, I did not think that I would be going out to work during a pandemic just a year and a half down the line. I was already on placement in the community just before the UK went into lockdown. I got the chance to work alongside nurses as they prepared their service to run through the pandemic and ensure that they would still have the ability to provide their services to their patients. For our safety, the University of Stirling called back student nurses from their placements and we went back to doing our theory modules online.

The university gave us options regarding our placements. We could either start in April or June, which ever one suited our personal circumstances best. I decided to start in April – at that point – I had no idea what I was heading in to.  We were allocated our placements a week before we went out and given numerous question and answer sessions, a preparation for practice session and a one on one with our personal tutors (should we have needed it).

University of Stirling nursing student Alex Parker

Our preparation for practice session covered a lot of important detail in relation to Coronavirus and what we should expect in regard to PPE, the new strategy for giving CPR to patients and various other components that are important for our safety as well as the safety of everyone we interact with. It was a lot of information to take in.

We had a session about Palliative Care, and in my student nurse career so far, a patient passing away was not something I had experienced before and was something that I had become increasingly more aware may be a possibility during this placement. My feeling was right, I did experience my first patient passing away in this placement and it was not how I expected it to be. We were 45 minutes into the shift when the patient passed away, and I just felt numb. It was clear to everyone that I’d never experienced this before, but I just wanted to get on with the day and make sure the rest of my patients were okay.

We were no longer supernumerary when we were on the wards, we were counted in the ward numbers, which in turn brought a deeper sense of responsibility but also a feeling that I sometimes didn’t know where I belonged for a shift. I knew I was a student, but sometimes they had too many students on shift, so I let other students shadow the trained nurses and I spent time with the Nursing Assistants and the patients. I learnt so much about the patients themselves being able to spend so much time with them and because they aren’t allowed to see their families and their memories are fading, I spent time talking to them about their family, if they had phoned for an update, I’d tell them, anything just to let them know that their family still loves them.

This placement has personally taught me a lot about emotional wellbeing in dementia patients and the importance of family. My patients are amazing and have done so well through the last three months of not being able to see their families. I was able to see a patient celebrate their birthday through the window with their family on the other side. There were so many emotions from everyone. Me, my patient and their family all cried because the strain of the pandemic was becoming real. It has been hard for families that are not allowed to visit as children aren’t allowed to hug their parents, wives are not allowed to kiss their husbands and siblings not being able to interact in their own way with their sibling all to maintain a social distance. For the patients, it is so hard for them to understand why their loved ones aren’t giving them a hug and are keeping their distance, and can upset them, when all they want is physical contact from their families.        

We were allocated our named mentors for placements, and mine is lovely and so dedicated to her patients.  The times that we have worked together she has tested me, and she has pushed me out of my comfort zone. It makes me nervous and uncomfortable, but I got on with it because I knew that they are only pushing me to be the best nurse that I can be.

I had to continue to learn my core theory modules, which include suicide prevention, the management of long-term conditions and the various aspects of health promotion. All of this was being done online. We had two modules running since we went onto online teaching and had an assessment for each.

For one module we had to create a poster in a group and reflect on the group working process. The group I had been allocated was a lovely group of women, that all worked so hard to do the best that we could. We used Zoom to engage with one another, but even that had its challenges. We managed to complete our poster and reflect on the situation and showed us the importance of communicating effectively when you can’t interact face to face or read someone’s body language.

This reflection also helped me in my placement when I was phoning patients families, other hospital wards or social workers. It taught me to be aware of the words that I use, and the way that I say them to ensure that I am passing over the correct information. It also showed me how, as nurses, it is important to prioritise work. I often found myself overwhelmed with tasks and trying to complete them all on my own. I quickly learned that I could delegate some tasks to other people.

My other module was looking at long term conditions and how a patient’s care should be planned according to their diagnosis. Importantly for this placement the module also taught us about being aware of co-morbidities. A lot of my patients had dementia and another mental health conditions, whether it be depression, psychosis or anxiety. This module’s assignment was a 3,000 word essay. This assignment was hard, it involved a lot of research, a lot of understanding of what I was reading.

This semester of university has been challenging for every student nurse and lecturer that I have had the opportunity to engage with. We had OSCE examinations to complete in October and already my classmates have begun to try and study.

This placement has allowed me a long period of time to develop my confidence and truly decide where I think I want to work when I graduate – even if it isn’t the setting that I am in now.

To finish off, I want to say thank you to the University of Stirling and their amazing nursing lecturing team for being a great support to all of their student nurses while we have been out on this placement. They worked tirelessly to make sure we had our placements and all the information we needed prior to going out was available and easy to find. They have always tried to make themselves available to us even with the upcoming academic year approaching and trying to plan amongst all of the uncertainty.

Interested in studying nursing at the University of Stirling? We’re ranked top 5 in Scotland for Nursing (The Guardian University Guide 2020) and our courses are approved by the Nursing and Midwifery Council.