A creative educational pivot in the midst of the novel coronavirus pandemic has produced some of the most meaningful relationships of three Concordia nursing students’ lives at the moment.

COVID-19 caused Concordia’s School of Nursing to shift the students’ summer clinical rotation from an in-person experience to regular wellness checks done over the phone. This summer, Sammy Pawelski, Halle Van Handel, and Megan Birenbaum together accumulated more than 140 hours of phone conversations with nine different elderly individuals who are housebound. Concordia’s nursing faculty partnered with Fresh Meals on Wheels of Sheboygan County to identify the clients in need.

The phone calls started as scripted check-ins, but as time went on, they morphed into something more.

“I’ve grown to care so much about each of my clients,” said Birenbaum. “One woman told me she had waited 91 years to have a granddaughter, referring to me! I was there to help identify any potential health risks that might be facing them, but what I didn’t initially realize is that I would also be helping to eliminate a health risk just by being a trusted friend that they could count on each week.”

For many of the clients, the CUW students were the only human interaction the home bound residents had from day to day.

The students also went beyond phone calls to show they cared. Birenbaum delivered flowers to her clients’ doorsteps, while Pawelski stretched her artistic muscles by creating homemade cards to send to each of her clients—a practice she’s continued even though her clinical is technically completed.

Featured and above: Sammy Pawelski created homemade cards to send to her elderly, home-bound clients.

“I told them on the phone that I’m not artistic at all,” Pawelski said with a laugh. “But they seriously loved the cards so much that I just continued it. Since they were alone, I wanted to do whatever I could to let them feel like I cared.”

One of Pawelski’s clients reciprocated the genuine care when he surprised her by requesting a song in her honor on his favorite radio station, 106.5 The Buzz, which he habitually listens to every day from noon to 1:30 p.m. The client was touched beyond belief when Pawelski returned the favor with her own song request on his behalf.

“That station only plays in Sheboygan so I had to tune in on the internet,” Pawelski said. “He called me right after his tribute played and he was so excited that I had actually listened.”

The telephonic clinical rotation is being called the Voices of Nursing campaign. Thanks to a recently announced grant from the Russell & Josephine Kott Memorial Charitable Trust, Voices of Nursing will continue into the fall, with Van Handel, Pawelski, and Birenbaum moving into paid positions as mentors to new CUW nursing students who are joining the effort. Concordia will extend its reach by also partnering with the Aging and Disability Resource Center of Ozaukee County to identify even more clients in need.

“We’re so honored that the Kott Foundation saw the value of this so that we can continue this project,” said Dr. Sharon Chappy, dean of nursing at CUW. “In health care, you still have to have professional boundaries, but at the same time, part of this effort was just to be a voice for the clients to listen to, especially in the midst of COVID when perhaps some of their other human interactions have had to cease for their physical safety.”

— This story is written by Kali Thiel, director of university communications for Concordia University Wisconsin and Ann Arbor. She may be reached at kali.thiel@cuw.edu or 262-243-2149.

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