At a booth representing WCU, students Ashten Mock, Kimberly Byrnes, Kevin Thornton and Miriam Lefler offer nursing services.

At a booth representing WCU, students Ashten Mock, Kimberly Byrnes, Kevin Thornton and Miriam Lefler offer nursing services.

As a student in Western Carolina University’s Accelerated Bachelor of Science in Nursing Program, Nick Ianniello of Candler was anxious and a little apprehensive about his upcoming career as a nurse.

But after going through the program’s service-learning requirement in the summer, Ianniello is feeling a lot better about his future after December’s graduation.

“(The summer) semester was kind of cool because we were finally feeling like, `Maybe I’ll be a nurse someday.’ It doesn’t feel as scary as it used to,” Ianniello said.

The same can be said for Kim Byrnes, a former social worker from Brooklyn who moved to Fletcher in search of a career change. Her service-learning experience left her with confirmation that it was a good move.

Last summer, ABSN students worked with low-income seniors living in Asheville’s Vanderbilt, Battery Park and Arrowhead apartments. They made home visits, answered questions residents had about their medications, and held health screening events.

Kim Byrnes measures a patient’s blood pressure.

Kim Byrnes measures a patient’s blood pressure.

“I feel like it gave me a little more confidence than I normally have,” Byrnes said. “It also made me feel good to give back because these people didn’t have much and they don’t know the kind of resources they can have.”

The ABSN program allows students to get their degrees in four consecutive semesters, including summers. The service-learning requirement is a community mental health course that was implemented into the ABSN program this summer at WCU’s instructional site in Biltmore Park, said Kae Livsey, associate professor in the School of Nursing. Livsey is in charge of coordinating the clinical placements for the community mental health rotations.

“I think what this has provided is a powerful learning experience for students to be the nurse doing the home visit, not an observational experience,” Livsey said. “They are directly interacting with people and addressing their needs. It helps them understand the complexities of life for a low-income senior, or someone who is disabled, whether that’s a physical disability or a mental disability, and additionally the economic challenges of being low income. Many of these people live very isolated lives and they’re lonely. It’s just been a really great marriage.”

As a medical assistant for Vista Family Health, Emily Querin of Asheville decided to further her education with a nursing degree. During her service-learning, she was part of a group that was paired up with traditional nursing students who also were completing their community mental health requirements.

“It’s a great chance to learn from your peers and it’s a great chance to see the actual picture of health care,” Querin said. “Coming from a background in family practice, I see a little bit of that, but I don’t ever go to people’s homes, so that was really great to see the environment that they live in and look at the struggles they have in their environment. It’s definitely different than talking about it in class. Being able to see people and address their challenges and their barriers to care in that situation is a great opportunity and expands your viewpoint.”

For Julia Boyer, a former science teacher from Mills River, it was good to get some hands-on experience. She did home visits at Arrowhead apartments.

Kevin Thornton checks the blood pressure of a resident.

Kevin Thornton checks the blood pressure of a resident.

“You could really see the home environment and help them with some easy medical questions,” Querin said. “They understand all the questions about the drugs and medications they’re taking. Sometimes they are just too intimidated, or just won’t ask when they go see a doctor.”

With ABSN students doing service-learning in the summer and traditional nursing students doing theirs in the fall and spring, WCU is now able to provide community partners with a yearlong presence, which Livsey sees as a way to establish a continued existence.

Students are sure to wear their purple attire, something that hasn’t gone unnoticed among the residents, Livsey said. “They’ll say, `Oh, you’re the people in the purple pants, or the student nurses,’ “ Livsey said. “We have visible recognition now.”

Livsey would like to see the program eventually expanded to provide primary care services on site, turning it into a multi-disciplinary learning placement. For now, she said it’s an invaluable and powerful experience for students to meet people in their environment and see how they live. It also falls in line with WCU’s strategic plan to enhance external partnerships with an emphasis on integrated learning experiences.

The students aren’t the only one’s benefitting from service-learning. They are providing a service the residents otherwise wouldn’t have, said Connie Olson, resident service coordinator at Arrowhead apartments.

Miriam Lefler visits with a patient while serving.

Miriam Lefler visits with a patient while serving.

Most of her residents are physically or mentally disabled, or both. And most are on Medicare or Medicaid and have an income of $720 per month, Olson said. They are independent and able to take care of their own needs with some assistance from an outside community agency.

“But there are a lot of people that just need a little something extra,” Olson said. “If somebody stops in and checks on them, it’s just a nice way to make their day, or check on their blood pressure. From the resident’s standpoint, it’s just something extra. They don’t get a lot of extra. They pretty much struggle for everything.

“Most of (the students) are coming from families that are not living in these kind of circumstances. They don’t usually see this side of things. When they see people who are addicted, people who are angry, people who are not going to do what you ask them to do, people that just don’t understand, people that are illiterate who didn’t get through high school, they see people that they’re going to see when they get out there and start working. The students have all been great.”