How health students became grads despite the best efforts of COVID-19

“It’s such a win in this crazy time”

When Elizabeth Bell decided to apply for the Medical Laboratory Assisting program, she felt she could see life after school clearly, given the high demand for pros in the industry.

elizabeth bell, nait medical laboratory assisting grad, class of 2020“Right out of school you have the opportunity to get a great job with stable pay [and] benefits,” says Bell.

At just 18 years old, she pictured herself moving from high school to the certificate program and on to a career within about a year. Then COVID-19 came to Alberta, and NAIT classrooms and labs closed mid-March.

Bell and her colleagues were about six weeks away from an industry practicum that was necessary for graduation but likely to be postponed.

“I was really worried that everything was just going to shut down – there’s no chance of me finishing school, there’s no chance of my practicum continuing.” Instruction continued online, with theory and some demonstrations, but Bell remained concerned.

“I was worried about what I was going to be doing the next few months and when I was going to start school again.

“There were so many question marks.”

Then, thanks to quick thinking and creativity on the part of instructors and industry partners, those questions began to be answered for Bell and her 27 classmates.

So much at stake

blood taking simulationWhile the students had much at stake if their program was put on hold, so did Alberta’s health-care system.

An army of medical lab assistants are needed everyday to collect a never-ending stream of blood and urine samples, perform electrocardiograms, and prepare samples for analysis. After a visit to the doctor, they’re among the first steps in addressing patient health.

Their post-graduate employment rate is nearly 100%.

“Students are important to us,” says Jacqueline Carter, student training coordinator of DynaLife, one of Alberta’s major providers of medical diagnostic services. “We felt we had to do everything we could to allow them to graduate [on] time.”

That was for the sake of these “COVID students,” says Carter, so they might keep life plans on track, but it was also for that of DynaLife. In recent years, the company has hired more than half of NAIT’s medical lab assisting grads.

What’s more, assistants will be essential when patients return to doctors’ offices after having delayed visits due to the pandemic, and a high volume of requisitions end up at collection sites, followed by a surge in samples at labs.

“It would have a significant impact on our industry partners to not have these graduates,” says Medical Laboratory Assisting chair Leona Hendricks (Medical Laboratory Technology ’99). “So we developed a way for the students to get caught up with the clinical skills that they needed.”

electrocardiogram machineWhen Carter and other DynaLife staff learned that NAIT facilities had closed, they offered up a patient care centre in downtown Edmonton, where samples were collected before it was temporarily closed during the pandemic, as a teaching lab. Then they set a schedule that would accommodate all the students while observing physical distancing requirements.

It was the missing link between the theory that students were learning virtually and the hands-on experience in tasks such as taking blood that they needed to qualify for practicums in labs that remained operational during the pandemic.

“How do you assess that online?” asks Hendricks with a laugh. “No thank you.”

“We felt we had to do everything we could to allow [students] to graduate.”

Instructors stocked that lab with supplies from NAIT, and DynaLife provided protective equipment such as masks and face shields to keep students, staff and instructors safe. Carter chuckles at the memory of Hendricks hauling a cartload of artificial arms for blood-taking practice along Jasper Avenue to the lab site.

“It was a serious time when we had to come together to make this happen for students, but it was a time when we were able to enjoy our partnership as well,” says Carter.

A week before virtual learning was to end, NAIT instructors surprised students with news that they were going ahead at a time when almost nothing for anyone, anywhere was going ahead.

“Our professors went all out to make this a possibility for us,” says Bell. “I can’t believe they pulled it off.”

"It feels like a huge success story for our students”

phlebotomy kit, NAIT medical laboratory assisting certificate programThe day of our interview, about a week after Bell had finished her program, she is already preparing herself for a job interview with DynaLife the following day. If she’s nervous, it’s masked entirely by excitement.

The opportunity makes Bell an anomaly. In an economy with youth unemployment of nearly 22%, her career is all but guaranteed to soon be underway.

She plans to spend some time working and making money, but hopes to one day return to NAIT for a diploma in fields such as Laboratory and X-ray Technology Combined or Diagnostic Medical Sonography.

“It feels like a huge success story for our students,” says Hendricks. “We didn’t think at the beginning of this that this could happen.” Each of the 28 students in Bell’s cohort would graduate.

“It’s such a win in this crazy time,” she adds.

That win is shared by many people. Hendricks and her staff learned how quickly they could adapt to seemingly impossible circumstances. An industry kept up its supply of skilled professionals. Alberta’s health-care system might not be as compromised by COVID-19 as it could have been. And a group of hopeful students didn’t have to put their futures on hold.

“I’m so grateful I got into health care at this time,” says Bell.

elizabeth bell, nait medical laboratory assisting grad, class of 2020

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