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Livonia — Randie Contreras expects to hit the ground running this week when she starts her career as a registered nurse tending to COVID-19 emergency room patients.

"I think it's going to be an eye-opener to go directly into the ER where all these patients are going to be, right out of school," said Contreras, a Riverview resident who is scheduled to start working Monday at Beaumont Hospital Dearborn. "To be starting my career in the middle of a pandemic is pretty amazing."

Contreras, 31, is one of 167 Schoolcraft College nursing students who completed their final exams and graduated May 2 from the program — the largest graduating class in the nursing school's history.

They're kicking off their careers during a time of crisis in the health care industry. Some hospitals report being overloaded with COVID-19 patients, while others have been forced to lay off staff because elective and other medical procedures are not being performed during the pandemic.

Nurses at Detroit's Sinai-Grace Hospital staged a sit-in last month to demand more support during the coronavirus emergency, while Beaumont Health, Michigan's largest hospital system, laid off 2,500 employees and permanently eliminated 450 positions because of lost revenue caused by the coronavirus emergency.

Despite volatility in the industry, Contreras said the timing for her entry into nursing couldn't be better.

"I'm a little worried, but I think I'm more excited," she said. "I'm not saying I'm grateful this virus happened — obviously not — but I think it's going to be a great experience, and definitely an eye-opener."

Contreras took advantage of newly relaxed rules that allow nursing school graduates to begin working as registered nurses during the pandemic before taking the eligibility examination. 

"I’ll be working as an RN graduate nurse," she said. "I'd already been hired for the position before the pandemic started, so I think it's best to start in the ER, and then take the exam later, because they need people in the ER now."

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's emergency order allows for the license waiver, said David Harns, a spokesman for the Michigan Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs.

"In working with the schools that have accredited nursing programs in Michigan, the nursing programs were running into concerns — at the time when the first EO was issued — as the national exam was not being offered due to COVID-19," Harns said in an email.

Schoolcraft College nursing professor Holly Austin said there are pros and cons to graduates beginning their careers as registered nurses before taking the exam.

"Typically, students could get hired as a graduate nurse, but wouldn't work as an RN until after they passed the exam, but the state Board of Nursing response to COVID was to waive that," Austin said. "The students will still have to take the exam later.

"That doesn't mean they all will take advantage of that and start working immediately as RNs," she said. "We're encouraging people to take the test as soon as possible. What we teach isn't always what you learn in the field, and the test is geared more toward the classroom, so it's easy to forget once you've been in the field a while."

That's the route Heather Grone, 52, of Westland decided to take after graduating with Contreras. She said there are multiple reasons why she decided to take her RN exam before starting work.

"Our professors from day one said we should take the state boards as soon as we can, because the longer you wait, it's been shown you don't do as well," she said. "I just wanted to get it over with, and then when I start working I will officially be an RN. Others are starting as RNs right away; each person is in a different situation, and I feel I'm in a good spot."

Grone said family concerns also prompted her decision to take the test first and start working later.

"My husband has an immune system problem, and we have a grandchild on the way," she said. "If I lived alone, I may have started work sooner, but I have to think of the people I live with."

Unlike her classmate Contreras, Grone said she doesn't expect to be swamped treating COVID-19 patients when she starts working in a few months.

"I probably won't be joining the workforce until June or July, and I don't think the hospitals will be overrun (with coronavirus patients) by then," Grone said. "But there will be a backlog of all the procedures that aren't being done now — hip replacement surgeries, and things like that. So, it's still an exciting time to be going into nursing."

Austin said Schoolcraft officials had to quickly adjust their curriculum to ensure the graduation wasn't delayed.

"We had to get creative because nursing is a hands-on profession, and when the shutdown went into place, that wasn't possible," she said. "So we changed our courses to a remote format within days. This allowed the students to graduate on time.

"We didn't have a ceremony, but we didn't hold up a single nursing student graduate," Austin said.

Students didn't get hands-on clinical time after the classroom closed, although Austin said they had plenty of real-life experience prior to the state shutdown.

"We still provided them with patient scenarios, and they also had to (help patients via telephone)," she said. "We also provided scenarios specific to the coronavirus, to encourage them to be ready for anything they may encounter.

"We also encouraged the students to do community surveys, to see what the needs of the community were as far as nursing goes," Austin said. "So we came up with a variety of ways to enhance their clinical experiences."

Grone said the college "did a phenomenal job" continuing her education during the pandemic.

"We missed our last seven weeks in the hospital, and I really missed that," she said. "One of the reasons was (personal protection equipment); if we all go to the hospital, they have to supply it for all of us, and you can't make them take away from their own trained people to give to students."

Grone said she and most Schoolcraft students already had plenty of clinical experience before the virus hit, with most students getting at least two days in the field per week.

"We got plenty of clinical experience," she said.

Grone, who has been a Schoolcraft nursing student "on and off for 30 years," said she can't wait to get started helping patients.

"In between life, I've been taking one class here, one class there," she said. "I raised a family, and home-schooled my oldest two children, but I've always kept at it. Nursing has always been a calling, and I think my age is an advantage.

"I don't think I'd have made a good nurse in my 20s, but life gives you a lot of experience," she said. "I think this is a wonderful time to start my career as a nurse, and see what the new normal is going to look like."

ghunter@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-2134

Twitter: @GeorgeHunter_DN

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