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Entering the medical field in a pandemic, students find motivation from COVID-19

WENATCHEE — Students in Wenatchee Valley College’s medical assistant program now carry pool noodles during lab time.

When held out at arm’s length, the 5-foot foam noodles offer a visual representation of the social distance students need to maintain — and offer a dose of levity during a world-altering pandemic.

Adapt and overcome is the new normal for the program’s class of 2020. Like most other students across the country, they transitioned to remote learning in the spring. Many have kids of their own who are also learning from home.

A few already work in health care and have experienced the pandemic first hand. One who works in a local senior care facility contracted COVID-19 in the spring. Another is a nursing assistant treating ICU patients at Central Washington Hospital.

But interest in the college’s medical programs has remained high and enrollment for the fall quarter is as strong as ever.

“It’s interesting how in these times, you’d think most people would take off and go the other way,” said Jan Kaiser, the medical assistant program director. “But we actually have people swarming to health care.”

Kaiser’s current students are now in the home stretch of their year-long program and are participating in real-world clinicals in facilities across North Central Washington.

“It really has taken a lot on the students’ part,” Kaiser said. “And bless their hearts because if they hadn’t stuck with us, they could have gotten frustrated and just quit. But they’ve hung in there and they’ve made it work — and we’ve made it work.”

Reilly Kneedler 

Medical assistant program Director Jan Kaiser, right, offers guidance to students Jessica Flores and Lady Oropeza as they practice giving shots to a synthetic cadaver during lab time on the WVC campus in July. Students are temperature checked and screened for respiratory infection symptoms ahead before each lab time.

Medical assistants keep doctor’s offices and outpatient facilities running. They check blood pressure, take patient history and arrange follow-up care.

“They’re basically the right-hand person of the doctor,” Kaiser said. “The doctors can’t survive without them, to be honest. It’s both administrative and clinical.”

Kaiser has been running the program at WVC for more than 20 years. In a normal year, students attend in-person classes for three quarters and spend the final quarter out in the field paired with a preceptor for hands-on training.

In April, as the pandemic’s first wave was rising, professors across WVC moved instruction to Zoom.

“We’re having to rethink our teaching,” Kaiser said. “We’re having to do more videos, get supplies that we can send homes with students. But then we also have to be safe.”

When teaching pharmacology, Kaiser had to get creative to allow students hands-on practice.

“I couldn’t send needles home because what if their kids got into them and got hurt? So I had to cut the needles off all the syringes,” she said. “Then, we sent the syringes home so they could at least practice the art of drawing up medication and pretend you’re giving it. It was crazy but it’s what we had to do.”

The medical assistant program attracts a wide range of people, from those fresh from high school graduation to adults looking for a career change. The online learning carried extra challenges for parents with school-aged children, Kaiser said.

“Some had only one computer at home, there’s also limited internet for some folks,” she said. “Four or five people trying to do all their classes, it really became tough. So I admire them for hanging in there.”

World photo/Reilly Kneedler 

Medical assistant program students carry pool noodles as they walk around the lab or in hallways to ensure they’re keeping six feet apart from one another. Most now carry messages of encouragement and have become mementos from taking the classes during a pandemic.

Fourth quarter came in early July and the students were finally able to get extended hands-on experience. Each was paired with a working preceptor for 160 hours of work in the Wenatchee Valley, Chelan or Leavenworth.

“That first week, we started with 21 students ready to go,” Kaiser said. “Then, two couldn’t go because they had family members test positive.” Each quarantined for two weeks before they were able to get out in the field.

Three days into her clinical experience, Aryn Baldwin’s preceptor found out she was exposed to a COVID-positive coworker, began showing symptoms and had to get tested.

“She felt so bad she almost started crying,” Baldwin said. “But I was like ‘It’s not your fault. You didn’t plan to have symptoms or anything.’”

Baldwin was also tested — both her and her preceptor’s tests came back negative and she was able to continue learning.

The pandemic has created similar delays for many students, Kaiser said. One had two of her children test positive. While her test was negative, she still had to quarantine for two weeks.

Normally the goal is for students to complete their clinical experience by Aug. 15.

“We could be doing this until October or November, we just don’t know,” she said. “So, that’s the hard part.”

Students have been able to attend a few in-person lab times this summer on the WVC campus. It’s a chance for them to ask questions and practice everything from drawing blood to giving vaccines on synthetic cadavers.

Each person is temperature checked and screened for respiratory infection symptoms before the lab time. They’re also required to wear full personal protective equipment, including masks, gowns and gloves.

“We come in and do this and it’s hot and it’s miserable, but it’s part of life,” Kaiser said. “Like I tell them, this is part of health care and they’re getting thrust into it. If they can handle this, they can handle just about everything out there.”

The pandemic, and the extra precautions that come with it, have given some students pause, Kaiser said.

“They’re nervous about it because it’s been such a big deal,” she said. “In Wenatchee, I think they know there’s a lot of sick people. We haven’t had as many deaths as some other cities and they haven’t lost loved ones as much yet. But it’s going to happen and that’s when, unfortunately, it’s going to really scare some people away. And I get that.”

It’s hit home for Kaiser too, she said.

“I’m 60 and I get nervous about it because I’m at the age now where I could potentially be at risk,” Kaiser said. “You do the best you can, you wear your mask, you wash your hands, you wear gloves if you need to and that’s all you can do.”

But enrollment in the college’s medical assistant and nursing programs for the fall quarter is strong, Kaiser said. As of Monday, Kaiser had 25 students enrolled for the fall, which is near her capacity of 30. The college’s nursing program had a record 120 applicants for 45 spots in the class.

World photo/Reilly Kneedler 

Wearing a mask, gloves and a mask, medical assistant student Meg Jackson uses a syringe during lab time in WVC’s Wenatchi Hall in July.

Some students said the intense global focus on health care has hammered home their desire to help.

“If anything, it’s kind of given me a little umph of ‘Let’s see if we can go out and see what we can do to make it better,’” Baldwin said.

Another student, Lady Oropeza, is already a certified nursing assistant and has been working in Central Washington Hospital for three years.

“I love what I do, being a CNA. I just wanted to try something different but still be able to have that close contact with people,” she said. “I’m a people person so I love to be around people and give five minutes of my time to patients.”

Oropeza, 36, often works in the hospital’s ICU, assisting nurses or helping prone patients, a labor-intensive process that requires rolling ventilated patients onto their stomachs to ease the stress on their lungs.

She’s continued to work nearly full time while taking her medical assistant classes. Her husband, who works in a local agriculture warehouse, and her two children have grown accustomed to the busy schedule.

“Sometimes they’re like ‘Where are you at today?’” she said. “It’s a little hard because you don’t spend a lot of time with your family but at the end of the day, they know I’m growing as a professional and as an independent woman.”

The family has a system for making sure Oropeza can immediately wash off to reduce the risk of spread after ending a shift at the hospital.

“When I’m leaving work I give them a call and say ‘It’s go time.’ They start getting doors open as soon as I get there so I don’t touch anything,” she said. “One opens one door, the other opens the other door. My daughter is in charge of opening the upstairs door so I can go straight into the shower. … I try to stay away from my kids as much as I can. I just say ‘No hugs and kisses for now.’”

Oropeza is OK with personal sacrifice — wearing full personal protective equipment week after week, working full time and furthering her education through the medical assistant program — if it means she can continue to help.

“You just push through it,” she said. “It’s my job and at the end of the day, I know I’m doing something good for the community and for my patients. And that’s my main goal.”

Opinion | Rufus Woods: How NCW is connected to the SpaceX success

Bob Behnken

Rufus Woods

Publisher emeritus

The successful completion of Elon Musk’s SpaceX mission to the International Space Station was a national triumph and it held special meaning for Don and Kit McArthur of Chelan.

Their son-in-law, Bob Behnken, was one of the two NASA astronauts on that mission and his wife, Megan McArthur, who is also an astronaut, is scheduled to go on the next SpaceX mission in early 2021.

It proves once again that some of the most amazing people in this country have ties to North Central Washington.

After the decommissioning of the NASA’s Shuttle Program, the agency is contracting with two private companies, including SpaceX, to shuttle astronauts into space for low-level flights. That arrangement leaves room for NASA to invest more time and energy in developing rockets and capsules for lengthier missions, such as anticipated flights to Mars.

The mission with Bob Behnken was a critical step forward for this private-public partnership. It was the first manned SpaceX mission after a few dozen unmanned flights.

Don McArthur is a 1961 graduate of Wenatchee High School, went to Washington State University and spent 22 years as a P3 land-based patrol pilot in the Navy. Kit graduated from WHS in 1962.

When we spoke on the phone, Don called SpaceX mission a “marvelous engineering achievement.”

McArthur said he doesn’t get nervous when his daughter or son-in-law head into space, because he has great confidence in the engineering and training of all involved.

Megan McArthur’s next mission will be her second in space and the first time to the International Space Station. She previously participated in a mission to repair the Hubble Space Telescope in 2009. During that mission, she operated the robotic arm that grabbed and released the telescope.

Megan McArthur will be the pilot on the upcoming mission that is expected to have a crew of four individuals.

She and Bob Behnken have a 6-year-old son. The family typically spends two or three weeks at Chelan during the summer months, but with Behnken’s flight and the Covid 19 situation, they won’t be visiting this year.

Don McArthur said his daughter is fully involved in her own training for the upcoming mission. “I’m proud of all four of my children, but Megan has the most unusual job,” he said.

Behnken and Megan McArthur were both members of NASA’s astronaut class of 2000. She has a bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering from UCLA and a doctorate in oceanography from the University of California at San Diego.

Her father said his youngest daughter showed an interest in flight from an early age. Don, who retired with the rank of commander, said Megan worked for NASA in simulators when he was stationed at Moffett Field near Mountain View, Calif. NASA’s Ames Research Center is located nearby.

With the drive to inspire more girls to get involved in science, technology, engineering and math fields, Megan McArthur can be a valuable role model for youngsters in North Central Washington and across the country.

We can be proud of our shirt-tail connection to the success and accomplishments of Bob Behnken and Megan McArthur. They don’t live here full time, but we can still claim them as our own.

Maybe there are ways for teachers and students in our local schools to follow the exploits of these two individuals and get youngsters excited about what is possible.

Washington's COVID case counts are declining, but health officials warn there's a long way to go

SPOKANE — State health officials announced some good news on Wednesday: Washington is finally starting to see a decline in the number of COVID-19 cases detected in the state.

“You generally have to see a few weeks’ trend in data to make sure you’re confident in what you’re seeing,” State Health Officer Dr. Kathy Lofy told reporters Wednesday. “And we’re starting to feel more confident that this trend we’re seeing is real.”

Lofy said that visits to the emergency departments in the state with COVID-like symptoms peaked initially at the end of March and then again in mid-July, but those visits also are also trending downward.

“It’s not perfect, but it’s another good sign that it appears that fewer people are sick with these symptoms,” Lofy said.

Hospitalizations for COVID-19 statewide have appeared to flatten in recent weeks, which health officials said is promising, although deaths reported per day have not declined and appear to still be on an upward trajectory. Lofy said this is to be expected, because hospitalizations and deaths are among the slowest indicators to be reported.

State health officials said their new goal is to get kids into classrooms to meet in-person this year, but such a goal will require continued adherence to gathering limits, mask mandates and residents limiting their exposures to others.

Although case counts are declining, the incidence rate of disease is still too high to reopen schools safely in person in the majority of counties in Washington, by the Department of Health’s standards.

Several other countries had 25 cases per 100,000 residents or less before opening schools. Washington’s average incidence rate for the past two weeks is 124 cases reported per 100,000 residents. In Spokane County, that rate is 208 cases per 100,000 residents.

“Our (COVID-19) activity is still very high, and there are many counties that are still not within the incidence rate that a lot of other countries were in when they reopened schools,” Lofy said. “So you could be seeing a flattening in data, but if there’s a lot of activity out there, COVID-19 will be frequently introduced into schools.”

State Secretary of Health John Wiesman did not specify a date when counties could begin to apply to enter the next reopening phase and said the focus is on driving COVID activity rates down low enough so that schools can meet in person.

“We will want to see what happens as the weather turns and as more people are spending time inside,” Wiesman said. “Generally, when we were looking at applications for folks to move to another phase, we wanted people below the 25 per 100,000 number and for their numbers to trend down, not up.”

Wiesman also noted that some local health jurisdictions reported that a move to Phase 2 was taken to mean a move to Phase 4 — the reopening plan’s final stage — by many residents who went back to life as if it was normal. The health secretary emphasized how important behaviors are to keep driving COVID-19 rates down.

“It’s a full-time job. You have to do this day in and day out,” he said. “And I know it can feel tiring to do this for a long time, and that’s what it takes. Talking about the winter season coming up and people being in even tighter confines indoors, we will have to sustain this. From the beginning, I’ve said there will be a different way of engaging and a new normal for quite some time.”

While statewide trends are encouraging, there are still particular communities that have been hit with COVID-19 surges in recent weeks.

“No county, no town, regardless of what your size is, is really immune from having an outbreak,” Lofy said. “Overall population immunity is low in big and small cities, so I think it’s possible we can see outbreaks anywhere throughout the state.”