Empty houses, isolation and guilt: the reality for student nurses during Covid-19

Jamie Mc Carron 

. Image credit: The Irish Times

“Nursing is predominantly female and it’s basically like just always spending time with the girls. I love nursing so much but it’s not the typical college experience.”

While nursing may never have been the typical college experience, it has now become a matter of life and death where disturbing mental images linger long after disposable masks have been thrown in the bin.

Spending time with the girls is no longer an option when student nurses were working dozens of hours a week in one of the country’s dangerous and most stressful workplaces.

Two nursing students in DCU spoke to The College View  about the isolation of their work, an overlooked aspect of what it means to be a student nurse in 2021.

Nicole, an assumed name, is a 4th year Paediatric and General Nursing student who worked a total of 12 weeks between the Mater and Temple Street hospitals.  She spoke out about the immense pressure on student nurses to be fully compliant with Covid-19 guidelines at all times.

“Last year for 8 weeks I was in an oncology ward. So I had to be very careful who I was interacting with, because the patients had very weak immune systems. If I brought something in with me, that could’ve been the end of them,” she says solemnly.

Young people are often used as a scapegoat for the spread of Covid-19; they face added judgement for their actions that no other age group faces. But Nicole argues that student nurses are the subsection of Irish youth that are the most scrutinised people in our society.

“There is a lot of pressure on student nurses, obviously we are always very cautious, but even when we did the things that were allowed, like meeting up in a little pod, because we’re student nurses people would be like ‘do they not have any responsibility?’” Nicole complains.

“There was a lot of stigma and guilt involved. In October when we were allowed to go out to restaurants and obviously we’d love to be out, but if you were seen out people would be like ‘she should have a bit of cop on.’ So even when it seemed like we might be able to have a bit of a social life we couldn’t.”

In December when TDs debated whether student nurses should be paid for their placements, some government politicians implied that as trainees, student nurses don’t do “real work.” Fully qualified nurses quickly defended their student counterparts, speaking out about the rigorous work they do side by side. 

Emotional exhaustion 

Although their workloads may be similar, fully qualified nurses are more experienced at dealing with the emotional labour that comes with watching human beings die in front of them on a regular basis. They are also more likely to have a significant other, or their own family, that they can talk to after a hard day’s work.

But student nurses are being thrown in at the deep end and are struggling to deal with the stress and isolation involved with being a nurse during a once-in-a-century pandemic.

Aoife (also an assumed name) is a second year General Nursing student in DCU, who spent the month of November on placement in Connolly Hospital in Blanchardstown.

Her first training placement in a hospital was in, as she calls it, “not a Covid ward, but with the could-be-Covids.”  Aside from the physical exhaustion she faced each day, she was mentally exhausted from constantly being on high alert about the spread of Covid-19.

“I’d be so worried of just going on walks with a friend or something, it’s so isolating. A lot of people are doing Zoom calls with their friends but when I’d come home after 13 hours at the hospital I was too wrecked to even go near a computer,” she says frustratedly. 

“There is a big social pressure on student nurses, you’re always kind of thinking about that. No matter what you’re doing it’s always in the back of your head not to put patients at risk.”

This deeply-ingrained sense of duty, as well as the stigma about what people will think of them if they are seen socialising, means that student nurses often suffer from a lack of human interaction. Not only is this lonely, but it can leave them without a person to talk to in order to get the distressing aspects of their daily work off their chests.

“When I went home I wouldn’t be able to stop thinking about it”

Nicole confides that the time she spent working in a nursing home over the summer (a common job for student nurses) was very upsetting.

  “It was a hotspot for Covid. I could go into work there one week and six people have just gotten diagnosed, and then the next week when I come in, those six have actually passed away,” she recalls.

“There was a husband and wife living together in the home who had been there for years and I’ll never forget when she rang the bell because her husband had stopped talking and we went in and he had passed away. They had been together for decades and it was gone so fast,” she says softly.

 “I saw things like that often but I’d have like ten other people in my care that needed my attention so I couldn’t dwell on it too long. But then when I went home I wouldn’t be able to stop thinking about it. That’s why I think it’s hard to be alone during all this. But if you live with someone you can talk about it and then eventually start talking about something else.”

Empty student apartments and trauma 

For student nurses like Nicole , trauma follows them on their journey home long after they have clocked out. This trauma may well  still be a part of their lives when 2020/21 is a long chapter in a history book and when debates over vaccines are a distant memory.  

Often, the things she saw at work wouldn’t impact her immediately. But after a shift, she couldn’t get rid of the traumatic memories as easily as she discarded her used PPE.

Aoife too had difficult experiences during her time in Connolly Hospital.

 “You’re always thinking about the people that only have a year or two left to live and it’s kind of stolen from them because of Covid closing everything. There was one old woman that was quite sick that would always tell me about how much she wanted to bake when she got home, but I knew she was never going to go home,” she states blankly. 

“It’s hard to see. There was this one man that we had in isolation because he was waiting for his Covid test results and he was in a room alone for a long time without much interaction. I went in, and you’re only meant to spend a certain amount of time with any patient, and he just spilled out all these things he wanted to say. You could tell he was holding it in and waiting ages for someone to talk to. It’s hard to see people so lonely.”

The student nurses caring for these patients are often just as lonely.  Student nurses do their placements in the hospitals of the city where they go to college. But since the arrival of Covid-19 and an unanimous move to online learning many students are living with their parents instead of around Dublin.

“You’re coming home to nobody everyday”

The student population in most cities has fallen significantly, but student nurses have no choice but to stay living  away from their families.

The student population in many university cities has fallen significantly, leaving student nurses living in what feel like ghost towns, devoid of the usual life and youthful energy. There are far less people in their early twenties around and because student nurses do their placements in the cities where they go to college, the majority of them don’t have the option of spending time with their families. 

“It was really tough in the summer, it got really lonely because the campus was nearly empty, you’re coming home from work to nobody every day,” Nicole recalls. She believes that not having anyone to talk to that could take her mind off work took a mental toll and made her job even harder.

She has since moved to Drumcondra, to live in a house with five other student nurses, but she knows that not everyone has been so lucky. “A lot of the student nurses I know are living alone. I think it does affect them a lot mentally. A friend of mine dropped out and another deferred because they were so sick of it all.”

“I don’t want a one-night stand to put me out of work for two weeks”

Like many people on Valentine’s Day, Aoife spent most of her day in bed. She was suffering severe side effects of her first vaccine jab. She was enduring breathing difficulties and chest pain. Nicole explains that romance is now the least of student nurses’ worries, however coming to an empty house often has to be avoided at all costs. 

 “I’ve stuck with the same lad for nearly a year even though I know the relationship is going nowhere, I’m just so worried that if he goes, I’ll be completely alone. I know a few girls in the same situation, they have no intention of being with a lad but they know that the only alternative is being alone because it’s not like they can go out to Dicey’s and meet somebody… The relationship is still going, but just for the wrong reasons,” she admits honestly.

Dead end relationships are resurrected and nurtured because they are far safer arrangements. 

There is no such thing as safe sex in the age of Covid-19, every encounter runs the risk of transmitting the virus. 

“I actually slept with someone in September and a while later he got Covid. He put me down as a close contact anyway, even though I couldn’t have gotten it from him. And I was literally about to go into work for a night shift at the Mater and then I got a text from the HSE saying I was at risk.” False alarms in hospital corridors are not worth the stress for physically and emotionally exhausted student nurses.y

She thinks that the social interactions missing from the lives of student nurses are vastly overlooked issues.

“I’d say there’s been plenty of times that I’ve cried over this. It’s all over the news how hard student nurses work and that we’re not getting paid but there’s other problems too that people aren’t comfortable voicing to the public,” she says dismally.

Every segment of the population has felt the negative social effects of Covid-19, but student nurses may have been hit worst of all. They are caught in the no man’s land  where two already struggling demographics meet. 

These isolated and  young college students have no way to mingle and meet new people. When these students put on their PPE gear they transform into hard-working nurses that face the ugly side of the pandemic head on, and are expected to hold themselves to near- perfect standards of discipline.

Nearly 2,000 student nurses had their placements cut short in January but 4th year students like Nicole are still in hospitals dealing with the worst wave of Covid-19 Ireland has dealt with. The long-term mental impact of having to section yourself off from the rest of  society while also working in the country’s most challenging workplace remains. 

*Note: This article was originally published on February 24th but republished on April 13th due to a fault with the College View’s website.*

Jamie Mc Carron

Image Credit: The Irish Times