BILLINGS – As any college graduate knows, hands-on learning is priceless when you're trying to get your foot in the door straight out of college.
"It was smooth sailing, up until March, when COVID started becoming a big deal," said Abby Freeman, a P.A. student from Rocky Mountain College.
Just months before her graduation, that real life experience was put on hold for Freeman and her classmates.
"Which was tough. It was online learning, and that's difficult during clinical rotations, you're not getting that hands-on experience," Freeman said.
The colleges and universities were first to restrict their students from doing rotations. Shortly after, the hospitals followed suit.
"When we were in a situation where it wasn't possible or feasible to have the students in the hospital, that was a detriment to their education," said Michael Bush, Chief Medical Officer of St. Vincent Healthcare are Holy Rosary Healthcare.
Bush said the decision didn't come lightly.
"My first thought, when they were talking about restricting students, was, if I was that student, I would be royally upset. Because this is an educational opportunity that is not going to come around again. This is a lifetime experience, and I would have wanted to be in the middle of it," Bush said.
It was a decision made for student safety, but it also allowed doctors and staff to prepare for a new reality.
"I just felt like I'm being useless sitting at home. I'm not helping out where I can, and it was hard to come to terms with the fact that staying home was me doing my part," Freeman said.
With her current rotation in the emergency department at St. Vincent Healthcare, the chance of being exposed to COVID-19 is high, but that risk hasn’t deterred Freeman.
"I think this is kind of a changing point in medicine. I think, no one really knew what to do when COVID hit, and providers that have been working 30 years had to learn how to deal with it. And so, I think being a student during this time was a saving grace for that," she said.
While some students are still waiting to return, Freeman resumed her rotations in mid-May.
"I come from a family of doctors, and nurses, and people that work in medicine, so it's always just kind of been something that I’ve always known and always wanted to do. I think seeing this pandemic hit and seeing providers out there doing everything that they can, it just reminds me of why I want to do this. I want to help people. I want to be on the front lines."
St. Vincent Healthcare typically has about 450 students on campus participating in their clinical rotations. Here's the breakdown:
200 Nursing Students
150 Medical Students
50 PA Students
50 Miscellaneous Specialties
In addition to welcoming clinical students back to St. Vincent Healthcare earlier this month, the hospital also lifted their "no visitor" restrictions to now allow one adult visitor per patient per day. All visitors are screened upon entry to the facility and are required to wear a mask. Visitors are asked to bring their own mask so the hospital can conserve and reserve their supply for patient care purposes.