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Nursing students value reciprocal education with local homeless population

Nursing students Robert Coale, Jacqueline Corbett and Domenique Villani hold the materials and first aid kits they left for the temporary residents of Safe Harbor of Chester County in July.

July may have been a sweltering month but it was also an enlightening one for nursing students Domenique Villani, Robert Coale, and Jacqueline Corbett. For their final practicum in community health just before earning their bachelor of science in nursing degree, the three students worked with the staff and temporary residents of Safe Harbor of Chester County in West Chester, Pa. Safe Harbor is an independent, nonprofit organization providing food, shelter, friendship, counseling and recovery opportunities to homeless men and women in the area. The shelter has space for 20 men and 20 women on separate floors.

During their visits, with the expertise of adjunct clinical faculty Terry Berkman, MSN, RN, the students assessed the needs of their clients and developed plans and educational tools based on their findings as well as research in community health literature.

“We wanted to create teaching plans that would most benefit the residents at Safe Harbor. Our first day we did blood pressure screenings, hydration status screenings, and we talked to the residents about what they would like to learn more about,” explains Jacqueline. She had no prior expectations as it was her first exposure to a homeless population; she found them “very eager to learn” about ways to stay healthy.  

Nursing students are seen here working with the temporary residents of Safe Harbor.

The students presented topics including healthy sleeping habits, foot care, and general first aid for such problems as bee stings, foot fungus, minor cuts, sunburn, alcohol poisoning, fainting, choking, and others based on questions from the residents. They did each program twice, once for the women, and then for the men, with approximately 15 people in each group. “We left behind two first aid kits and handed out ear plugs and chamomile tea, as well as bandaids, antifungal cream and hydrocortisone cream. We also gave out pamphlets on all the first aid topics on compact cards for the residents to take with them,” notes Jacqueline. 

Residents responded to the presentations and screenings, including one named Mary who emailed Berkman, “Visits from you and your nursing school students made such a challenging time so much less so for various reasons, one of which was the very important tests supplied.”

“One of the goals taking students to a site like this is for them to understand what the patients they care for in the hospital may be coming back to and how it affects the patient's ability to comply with any treatment plan,” explains Berkman. “It impacts how and what the nurse in the hospital teaches and how the discharge from the hospital needs to be planned,” she says.  Berkman has seen both sides, as a former emergency department nurse who has been teaching community health for 15 years.

For Jacqueline, who hopes to launch her career in New York City, the practicum had the intended effect. “This experience has been amazing and has completely changed my view on the homeless in society…Their life stories really touched us, and I believe it has opened my eyes to the many injustices in today's society. I believe that I will have more compassion and empathy towards others when I am working with the homeless in hospital settings,” she notes.