As the UAB School of Nursing closes out its 70th anniversary celebration, UAB School of Nursing Dean and Fay B. Ireland Endowed Chair of Nursing Doreen C. Harper, PhD, RN, FAAN, reflects on 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic and the School’s 70th anniversary.
Notes: This interview was conducted in June 2021, prior to the Delta variant surge of COVID-19. For the latest updates on COVID-19 safety guidelines, go to uab.edu/uabunited.
Q: The year 2020 and the COVID-19 pandemic led to a lot of changed plans for the first Year of the Nurse. As you reflect on the year, what are some of the UAB School of Nursing’s strengths that stand out to you?
2020 was an unexpected year for nursing and for academic nursing. As we went into the year, we had a huge celebration to kick off not only our 70th anniversary, but also to kick off the International Year of the Nurse and Midwife. We had so many events planned to coordinate with both celebrations, but instead we faced a year of challenge and change, adapting to change and responding to challenges and looking forward to try to prevent any additional issues that might arise out of the COVID-19 pandemic.
This was so critical because it exemplified that nurses can respond to any situation and do it well. In fact, with all of the changes that were required in education — pivoting very quickly to fully online courses — really required our faculty to be fully collaborative with each other and with our community partners.
2020 was a year that dramatically changed how we lived, how we worked and how we learned. But one thing I know for sure is that our new school of nursing building was truly set up for us to adapt. If we hadn’t moved into that building in mid-2018, we would have been in dire straits in terms of helping our students adapt and progress through their programs.
And in terms of the International Year of the Nurse and midwife, the importance of nurses became so clear that the Year of the Nurse was extended to now, in 2021. It didn’t stop because nursing was front and center in all aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Nursing worked to design and operate the testing centers, vaccine administration and care for the acutely ill working at the bedside. Nursing was ever present, constantly learning and rose to the occasion in a way that was phenomenal to see.
Q: As the School of Nursing adapted to the pandemic, we were able to work closely with our community partners. How are those partnerships stronger moving forward?
The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted just how critical these partnerships are, including our partnership across the bridge with UAB Hospital. Our partnership not only enabled us to get our students back into clinicals nearly right away — beginning in Summer 2020, while some schools and some hospitals were holding off on clinical placement until the Fall — but also showed the reciprocity in our partnership. UAB Hospital is a high-acuity medical center, and even prior to the pandemic had a great need for nurses as it had opened new units.
We saw so many aspects of nursing come together, including the Alabama Board of Nursing which made modifications to allow continued graduation of highly educated nurses. But it was our partners that really opened the door to allow our students back into the clinical area, to receive the essential clinical experience they needed.
We also had our own clinical entities — nurse managed clinics that UABSON operates — which allowed us to bring in students for clinical hours. We were continuing to provide care, often through telehealth, and our students were allowed to work with our faculty so that they could continue to gain experience and deliver services while following social distancing guidelines.
Q: The UAB School of Nursing had several successes in 2020, including increased NIH funding and nationally ranked graduate programs. How do these rankings reflect our strengths as a school, and how do we continue to build on those accomplishments?
These rankings reflect on the people who work in the School of Nursing and at UAB, as well as the opportunities for growth and development afforded as a member of the UABSON or a graduate of the School of Nursing. UAB is a happening place, and it’s because we are all focused on forward motion. And an upward trajectory as a university.We are able to look at where we e been for the past 70 years and where are we going in the next 70.
The growth in NIH funding is one of our long-term goals that has been part of our goal setting and infrastructure building. This focus means our faculty have the support the need to move forward, to write grants and to receive funding. Even during the pandemic, they continued to complete as much work as was possible in a remote setting. That has been a hallmark of how we work across all of our missions. I share that with you because there were no places in the school that stopped or failed to rise to the occasion.
This dedication to nursing and to maintaining strong programs, opportunities for clinical placement and a commitment to advancing the pipeline of highly educated nurses contributed to our rankings. It is a reflection of both the work that the faculty, students and alumni completed during 2020 and beyond.
Q: We cannot deny that in 2020, there were also many challenges in nursing. What are some challenges that you believe the nursing profession and schools of nursing will have to face moving forward?
We saw that there has to be more attention to the health and wellbeing of nurses moving forward. We must think about mental health as well as physical health for nurses, and we must understand nurses are human beings just like the individuals they care for. We can’t expect nurses to take on extra shifts or be understaffed— they’ve got to have support to do their job well.
The other issue that came through is the conversation around disparities in health care for underrepresented individuals. It was also compounded by the fact that we saw social justice issues emerge in conversation during the pandemic, and we saw the COVID pandemic health disparities for many communities. Nurses take care of all people, and if all people are not only afraid of the pandemic but also are afraid of the disparity in the pandemic and how COVID might impact them, that means we have to be more sensitive, but also more culturally aware and humble. We can’t just see things our way — we need to listen to all perspectives in order to provide complete health care and to improve health equity.
There are nurses in every neighborhood and every community. They are part and parcel of the community, and nursing, just by communicating, can truly help work with our communities. We can see a patient along a continuum and help them recognize the impact of health and illness, and to really work with people based on their needs and their environments.
It exposed very deeply rooted and painful experiences for people, but hopefully now we can respond and approach challenges by considering how can we work together, with all people.
Q: Through this blog, we were able to celebrate the School of Nursing’s legacy of leadership and its impact on nursing. As you look forward, what are some ways the School of Nursing can continue to be on the leading edge and impact the health and wellbeing of our communities?
Recognizing our legacy is an important way to continue to move forward. In the month of April, we recognized in six different sessions 70 visionary leaders whose work is so outstanding and impactful across the world, that it reminded me of what UAB Nursing is all about. It showed how we really prepare leaders who transform health. To me, that was an important part of understanding where we’ve been and where we’re going.
You’ve got to know your past to be able to predict your future, and this year showed how our work is not done. It continues as we continue to prepare the leaders who will impact nursing over the next 70 years. It’s an honor to be a nurse, to have the trust from our patients and our communities. My sense is that we will only continue to do this work — we’re not standing back but leaning forward.