SRU nurses take on vital role in student health care
From left, Grace Hajave and Barb Mathews have retired after a combined 50 years as nurses at Slippery Rock University’s Student Health Center.
May 6, 2021
SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. — May 6 is National Nurses Day, a time to recognize the contributions that these health care professionals make to improve people's health. The Slippery Rock University community could celebrate for an entire month and recognize a day for each of its Student Health Center nurses. But recognition on this occasion is particularly prescribed for two SRU nurses who are hanging up their stethoscopes and retiring after a combined 50 years with the University and nearly 80 years in the profession.
Barb Mathews and Grace Hajave, who worked 27 and 23 years at SRU, respectively, were among the 19 registered nurses and registered nurse practitioners who work in the SHC before retiring within the last two weeks. The SHC also employs about a dozen other substitute nurses who are called in when needed with the COVID-19 pandemic serving as an example.
"That's always been life as a nurse," Mathews said. "We've had all kinds of changes over the years and things that we've had to adjust to and be aware of, and COVID has just been another one of them. We've had some really great nurses here over the years and there's been a lot of a lot of good mentoring from those who came before me and it's just been fun to mentor the ones who came after me."
The most important relationships, however, are those between nurses and students. Registered nurses are available for SRU students 24/7 during the academic year, making the SHC operate as a combination between an urgent care facility and primary care office.
"We're not just a Band-Aid station," Hajave said. "As college health nurses, our mission is to educate and to encourage independence of care, and while we are open 24/7, we operate more like a primary health care facility."
Prior to the pandemic, nurses could see more than 120 students in a 10-hour shift, through walk-in visits and appointments, especially at the height of flu season. The SHC had as many as 60,000 student contacts per year and 20,000 in-person visits. In the last year, however, the SHC transitioned to telehealth and appointment-only visits, including conducting COVID screenings as students remained in their vehicles or walked up to a window near the SHC entrance at Rhoads Hall.
"This was a huge model shift for us and for our students," said Kris Benkeser, director of student health and wellness. "We did a lot of nursing by phone, checking on our isolation students, talking to students about their symptoms and recommending testing options."
But it's not like nurses were unprepared for the shift. They were already considering implementing aspects of telehealth to better serve students.
Additionally, nurses anticipated other potential health threats that could put the campus at risk. Hajave was responsible for creating Student Health Services' infection control program in 2010, educating the staff, monitoring supplies and infection control stations, implementing surveillance and hand-washing protocols.
"Grace made sure that we were top flight and game-on with all CDC recommendations or best practices for how to protect ourselves and students and how to stop health care acquired infections," Benkeser said.
The infection control program was useful when protecting the University from outbreaks of Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus infections, also known as MRSA. And while they couldn't have possibly predicted something on the global scale as COVID-19, the staff was ready to adapt to evolving health crises.
"The worst-case scenarios had been neutralized with the quick response from the University in collaboration with Student Health Services," Hajave said. "We were monitoring COVID closely and performing rapid tests and PCR tests to confirm our rapid tests, and we were also getting phone calls every day from students who had symptoms, quarantining students, isolating students and monitoring them. There's a mountain of things that we do and a lot of it seems like small details."
As evidence of the effectiveness of SRU's COVID-19 response, the total number of positive student cases at the midpoint of the spring 2021 semester was 44% lower than the cumulative cases through the first half of the fall 2020 semester.
The final year of Mathews' and Hajave's careers was certainly an outlier compared to their other years at the University, but that didn't mean the pre-pandemic environment was routine or uneventful.
"For many years, Barb was the night nurse and, to me, what sums up her career is this: 'Barb Mathews is the reason that I slept well at night,'" Benkeser said. "She is an excellent, independent decision-maker. When you're the night nurse you often manage students who are really experiencing something horrible, such as a mental health crisis, sexual assault or a severe illness."
And the care they provided had a lasting effect, something that was not lost on many students who would approach the nurses who worked at commencement ceremonies to thank them for all they did, or the students would stop by the SHC to say goodbye before graduating.
"Graduation for me is really rewarding, just to see the students we've helped get through it all and succeed," Mathews said. "It's just a wonderful feeling."
Hajave, who earned her bachelor's degree in nursing from SRU in 2000, had even deeper connections to the University. She grew up in Slippery Rock and her late father, Walter Powell, was an SRU professor of political science for nearly 45 years. But her reasons for working at the University were not only because of her father or because it's her alma mater.
"Partly, why I stayed at SRU so long, was that connection that you make with students," Hajave said. "And a lot of nurses would point that out. Sometimes you build on a relationship with a student who comes in more than one time and I think there's a healing aspect to that. It's reciprocal, you know, for nurses and patients. That was greatly missed (during the pandemic) when we only interacting by phone or Zoom."
As SRU prepares to resume more in-person activity in the fall and one-on-one healing resumes, nurses will be on hand taking vital signs, but those leaving vital roles will not be forgotten.
"Barb and Grace will certainly be missed," Benkeser said. "They are unbelievably kind and they always put our students first."
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