An Algonquin College nursing student says the school’s administration has stonewalled her attempts to switch her upcoming placement at an Ottawa long-term care home hit hard by the novel coronavirus, despite her concerns about what a potential COVID-19 exposure could mean for her at-risk son’s health.
Erika Godin’s son Mason has Hypoplastic Left Heart Syndrome, a defect that essentially means he’s running on half a heart.
The rare condition, which has seen Mason undergo six surgeries and many additional operations, was already putting a demanding strain on the Godin family before the pandemic.
With Mason recovering in a bed at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto for months following a surgery last winter, Erika, a single mother, would often have to take overnight buses back to Ottawa to attend her nursing classes at Algonquin College.
Mason was discharged from the Toronto hospital just before the pandemic hit in March, and he’s been able to maintain care through checkups at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario and via telehealth.
But while the Godins have been able to keep Mason’s risk of COVID-19 exposure low for the past seven months, his mom is concerned that an upcoming placement to complete her nursing diploma will put his health on the line.
“If he were to get sick, because his heart doesn’t work as well as other people’s, he’s at very high risk,” she says.
Nursing students in Algonquin College’s two-year program have to attend a handful of practicum placements over their course of study including a final 300-hour preceptorship placement that includes 40 hours of work a week.
Godin’s class was supposed to have completed this final placement earlier in the year, but it was pushed back due to the pandemic.
In a few weeks, Godin says she is meant to start a placement at the Perley and Rideau Veterans’ Health Centre, a long-term care home that has seen three coronavirus outbreaks across its facilities.
Twelve residents of the home have died in relation to COVID-19 and 67 people have tested positive for the virus at the site.
The most recent outbreak, which saw four total cases and no deaths, was declared resolved as of Wednesday, according to Ottawa Public Health’s (OPH) COVID-19 dashboard.
Godin says students usually have three days to select six placement preferences, but weren’t formally notified that the selection system was opened this time around. Options include units at Ottawa hospitals, but she says students must include two long-term care homes among their picks.
An Algonquin College spokesperson says the nursing program’s placement software takes students’ preferences into consideration, but the final outcomes are often based on the number of available spots at high-demand care settings, such as major hospitals.
A student who selects only in-demand placements, therefore, is more likely to be disappointed by the system’s final outcome.
“The biggest constraint is the number of spots in preferred settings — of which the College has no control,” the spokesperson said in an email.
Godin says she’s heard from nearly a dozen of her classmates, all of whom were not placed according to their choices. She believes the final selection process is not fully random, and says she has heard that teachers have a degree of control over which students they work with.
Asked whether anyone at the college could change the results of the sorting algorithm, the spokesperson told Global News that “in order to ensure the process is free from bias, no one has influence over the software results.”
Godin notes that students could end up only doing placements in a single setting throughout the course of their studies, potentially losing out on valuable on-the-job skills if they’re not placed in a variety of learning environments.
Algonquin’s spokesperson added that the college has not received additional requests for placements at long-term care homes amid the pandemic, and has actually received fewer spots in these settings “due to the current realities of many of our long-term care partners.”
Godin, who wishes she could have been placed in an acute-care setting, says a long-term care facility is her nightmare.
“Long-term care is very dangerous,” she says.
She notes that some residents with dementia are prone to wandering in long-term care settings, which will require direct contact to return them to their beds. She says patient controls are stricter in acute care, and would therefore reduce her risk of exposure.
Godin says she has nowhere to place her son for the duration and aftermath of the placement. The thought of directly exposing herself, and thereby, her son, to the virus through this placement leaves her stricken with fear.
“It’s petrifying,” Godin says.
Health-care workers and first responders make up 19 per cent of Ottawa’s total COVID-19 cases, according to OPH.
Algonquin’s response to Godin’s concerns appear to have shown little flexibility on the college’s part.
In an email addressed to Algonquin nursing students obtained by Global News, an administrator writes that “there is no guarantee of not being exposed to COVID-19 in ANY clinical setting, long-term care or acute care.
“We are not moving anyone to a new location,” the email concludes.
Algonquin College’s spokesperson reiterated this in a statement, noting that COVID-19 has been present in both acute and long-term care settings, “so we are not able to provide a guarantee as to potential exposure in any clinical setting, or elsewhere.”
Students can request changes, the spokesperson said, but these will only be granted in “extenuating circumstances,” such as a conflict of interest.
Nursing students do have an option to defer their final placements, to complete them at the same time as next year’s class.
But Godin says this would ultimately leave her with the same odds of being placed in a long-term care home as this year, based on Algonquin’s allocation system.
And completing this final step of her program next month is integral for Godin, who is gearing up to apply for a registered nursing program in Hamilton. Missing the upcoming round of applications this fall would mean delaying her plans for a full year.
She says she wants to move across the province to be closer to SickKids for her son’s care.
Godin says she is frustrated by the stonewalling from her school and wishes the powers that be would have a bit more empathy for those in challenging circumstances.
“I would just like to be placed into an acute-care setting and I wish that they were just a little bit more understanding of people’s situations.”