The School of Nursing was rocked by tragedy last Wednesday, when five of its nearly 200 students were killed in a traffic accident on highway I-16 near Savannah.
Caitlyn Baggett, Morgan Bass, Emily Clark, Abbie Deloach and Catherine “McKay” Pittman were all “junior one” nursing students, meaning that they were in their first semester of nursing program. Brittney McDaniel and Megan Richards, also junior one students, were injured in the crash and treated for their injuries.
While the entire campus grieved the loss of those students, the nursing program and particularly the junior one class, felt that loss much more acutely.
This is likely due to the nature and structure of the nursing program, senior one (third semester) nursing student Kendall Arakawa said.
“It’s very close,” Arakawa said. “I wouldn’t discount how close the individuals in junior one are.”
Georgia Southern University’s nursing program is nationally acclaimed, ranked one of the top 100 in the country by U.S. News and World Report this year and getting in is competitive.
“We admit about a third of the students who apply,” Melissa Garno, director of the Bachelor of Science in Nursing program, said.
According to chair of the nursing school Sharon Radzyminski, the lowest GPA in the current junior one cohort is around 3.6. To even be admitted to the program, students must have already completed all their core curriculum requirement.
“We accept 50 students each semester, and those 50 that are accepted and begin will take the same courses with the same classmates for the next two years,” Garno said. “They get very, very close.”
The course load is extremely rigorous, Radzyminski said, but necessary to train nurses who are willing to serve and capable of managing all manner of situations.
“There is an enormous amount of work,” Radzyminski said.
Classes are generally four days a week, around eight in the morning to three or four in the afternoon. During their two years in the program, student nurses must also complete 1,000 hours of direct patient care, which they do by completing clinicals at local hospitals.
Baggett, Bass, Clark, Daniels, Deloach, Pittman and Richards, were on their way to their final clinical of the semester when their accident occurred.
“Students have to not just learn textbook information, take a test, move on. They literally have to transform themselves into another person,” Radzyminski said. “There’s no ‘I’ here anymore . . . I want, I want, I want, I need, I need, I need – gone. It’s about everything to do for somebody else.”
The School of Nursing is doing all it can to make sure its students have to work through the grieving process and make it to the end of the semester and beyond, Radzyminski said.
“We didn’t officially cancel anything because we understand that some people need the normal working of day to day life,” Radzyminski said. “So we didn’t cancel anything, but we didn’t require anyone to attend.”
The program wanted to make sure that any students who wanted to attend funeral services or go home to be with family were able to do so, she said. They also extended deadlines on all projects until the very last day of class. Any students who feel like they are unable to complete the coursework this semester will be allowed to take incompletes and work on finishing their work over the summer.
Aside from academic support, Radzyminski said that the faculty, who are also grieving, are doing all they can to make sure students have emotional support as well. Not only by making sure they are aware of counseling services, but by simply being there for those who need it.
“So much of grief is just that physical need to be with somebody else and to know that that somebody else is going to accept what you’re going through, and that’s what we’re trying to do,” Radzyminski said. “We understand that some people need to be completely alone and we leave them alone. We understand that some people just really need to be held and we’ll hold them.”
In their memory
Nursing schools from all over the country have reached out to GSU’s School of Nursing in support, sending flowers, planting trees and making plans to start scholarship funds in the fallen students’ honor, Radzyminski said.
The nursing students of GSU themselves have met to discuss what they feel would be the best way to honor their lost classmates, and while nothing has been decided for sure, Radzyminski said that students seemed particularly fond of the idea of a commemorative wreath.
The wreath would hang on the first floor of the nursing building and be made of grapevines and decorated Georgia Southern colors and apricot roses, to symbolize the profession of nursing.
“And as students graduate from the program, they would tie a little ribbon around one of the branches in memory of these five as they themselves become a professional nurse,” Radzyminski said.
Garno expects that in the long run, this tragedy will bring the junior one class and the nursing school closer as a whole.
“They get up together, they go to classes together, they eat together, they study together, they live together,” Garno said. “These aren’t just casual acquaintances -they’re sisters.”