Langara nursing program preparing students for ‘dire’ B.C. nursing shortage

The pandemic has accelerated a critical nursing shortage, according to advocates


By Suzanne Baustad

This story has been updated to include the perspective of a recent graduate of Langara’s nursing program.

Langara nursing students are training for the frontlines of health care during a deadly pandemic. But their biggest challenge might come as they prepare to work in the middle of a critical nursing shortage.

“[The government has] known the shortage has been coming for 20-some years,” said Wanda Pierson, division chair of the nursing faculty at Langara College. “They just didn’t know it was going to happen in the middle of a pandemic.”

COVID-19 worsens “dire” shortage

COVID-19 has worsened a shortage described by the B.C. Nurses Union as “dire.” In a recent BCNU poll, 35 per cent of nurses said they may leave the profession due to the stresses of the pandemic. B.C. government data indicates 23,000 more nurses will be needed by 2029.

Understaffing during a pandemic presents challenges for student nurses, said Kim Withers, director of membership services at the Nurses and Nurse Practitioners of B.C.

New nurses to face extra stressors

New nurses may not get as much one-on-one attention from mentors. Their patient load may double. On top of this, Withers says, “the pace of what’s happening is increased dramatically with COVID.”

Withers said nursing schools can help prepare students by mirroring these conditions.

A recent grad’s experience

For a Langara nursing graduate, practising on mannequins in nursing school could not compare to caring for COVID patients in understaffed hospitals.

“When I first started working with COVID patients I was for sure very anxious,” said Langara graduate Rensel Astudillo who began work as a student nurse in May 2020. Because little was known about the virus at the time, he moved out of his home to protect his family’s health.

During a recent emergency room nightshift. Astudillo and a newly graduated nurse he was mentoring were left on their own to care for five patients in need of hourly interventions. “Coming home from that [shift] I cried,” he said. “I just felt so overstretched that night.”

Astudillo says new graduates have been caught off guard by the toll nursing through the pandemic has taken. “We were all really excited to start working but then, a few months in, we were all really tired and burnt out already. I think that’s one thing that we really don’t expect to happen.”

A recent report from the Ontario COVID-19 Science Advisory Table found that, a year into the pandemic, over 60 per cent of health care workers reported emotional exhaustion, up from 20 to 40 percent in pre-pandemic times. The report says interventions are urgently needed to stem the tide of nurses choosing to leave the profession altogether. B.C. government data indicates the province will need 23,000 more nurses by 2029.

Rensel Astudillo discusses his experience in his first year nursing.

When it comes to preparing students for the stress of a pandemic, intensified by understaffing, Langara’s nursing division chair Wanda Pierson points to the rigours of the program. “Nursing school is one of the hardest things you can do in your lifetime,” said Pierson who has nursed through SARS and swine flu in her 45-year career.

Astudillo credits Langara nursing school with teaching students how to prioritize patients based on how sick they are. But, he says, students typically train with only three stable patients when nurses often juggle five critically sick patients at a time. He would like to see the scope of nursing training expanded to allow students to care for more and sicker patients while they still have their instructors to back them up.

To help with transition shock, the Nurses and Nurse Practitioners of B.C., an advocacy organization that promotes nursing, offers a workshop for new grads. “I think new graduates really need to be aware that there is a lot of resources and a lot of groups that will support them through this transition,” said Kim Withers, the organization’s director of membership services.

Astudillo says the anxiety he developed, in his first year of nursing, from working with severely ill patients and insufficient staffing will leave a lasting impression. He wants to see nurses, and the system they work in, better prepared for the next pandemic. “I suffered with a lot of anxiety the first few months, and I still do, to this day, to be honest.”


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