Oregon Health and Science University nursing students Jason Unterbrunner and Nikki Zielinski exult in the snow in Southeast Portland as they make their way to meet with a Catholic Charities of Oregon client. The students, who always go out in pairs, are part of OHSU’s I-CAN program, which connects nursing students in their senior year with clients who need personalized care. (Courtesy OHSU School of Nursing)
Oregon Health and Science University nursing students Jason Unterbrunner and Nikki Zielinski exult in the snow in Southeast Portland as they make their way to meet with a Catholic Charities of Oregon client. The students, who always go out in pairs, are part of OHSU’s I-CAN program, which connects nursing students in their senior year with clients who need personalized care. (Courtesy OHSU School of Nursing)
Nursing students from the University of Portland and Oregon Health and Science University who work with Catholic Charities of Oregon clients come away with a renewed commitment to their field and a much greater appreciation for the challenges their patients are facing, according to their professors.

They can also come away with joy.

Kristen Beiers-Jones, an assistant professor at OHSU, remembers the student nurses who had been working with a severely depressed Iraqi refugee. Nothing seemed to help.

The students finally asked the man what had made him happy in Iraq.

Fishing, he told them.

The students worked to get the man a fishing license and put him on the banks of a creek.

It worked.

Beiers-Jones recalls the contagious delight two students experienced with a refugee from Egypt. The woman had never seen snow before, and the pure joy on her face came through in the student nurses’ notes.

“I think they’ll forever be nurses with a heightened cultural humility after this term,” said Beiers-Jones.

Rose Bak, chief program officer at Catholic Charities of Oregon, said the student nurses greatly benefit Catholic Charities clients as well. Many clients, especially those who are homeless or are refugees, don’t necessarily trust medical professionals, and are even more cautious about going into unfamiliar and complicated health bureaucracies. Having the student nurses come to them, where the clients are on their own home turf, makes a difference. “If you’re in your own building you’re more likely to take a chance talking with a stranger,” Bak said.

The University of Portland teams of student nurses staffed regular hours last autumn in several of Catholic Charities’ facilities: Kenton Women’s Village, St. Francis Dining Hall, St. Francis Park Apartments, as well as senior housing and family housing units.

Then they encouraged people to drop in and talk.

The students, a couple of times, arranged transport for ailing Catholic Charities clients to emergency rooms and sometimes scheduled telehealth appointments with physicians.

They tried to set up those appointments when they could also be there for support.

The students talked with individuals who were having mental health issues, and, in one case, identified that a sick resident had dangerously low blood sugar.

Bak said Catholic Charities was thrilled when the U.P. School of Nursing contacted them to set up this program for 24 of their students, who also staffed flu clinics.

The OHSU Interprofessional Care Access Network (I-CAN) students are all seniors. They meet with individual clients from Catholic Charities who are referred to them. Beier-Jones said the students are expected to learn from individual patients and then “zoom out” to consider what that individual case means in a larger context. That wider view prompted the students to help pass Oregon Senate Bill 698, which says prescription labels must be printed in a language the patient understands.

It came about because the student nurses had encountered so many individuals who weren’t taking their medications properly because they could not understand the labels.

In another instance, the nurses saw that the local food bank didn’t stock culturally appropriate foods for clients from Catholic Charities’ Kateri Park housing. The people were familiar with fresh vegetables, not canned.

Right now, the students are looking for a traditional Burmese healer who might help with a patient who only trusts traditional healers.

They’ve continued to meet often with clients outdoors, everyone wrapped in blankets, for both the nurses’ and clients’ safety from exposure to COVID-19.

Beiers-Jones said the nursing students gain an invaluable experience in the program. “Most nursing schools talk about the social determinants of health — housing, food security, transportation, child care and so on,” she said. “The students know that in theory. But when they’re working at the site, it’s a visceral experience to see what it’s like to not have food at the end of the month.”