An image of Anne Norwood, a nurse practitioner at Johnson Health Center in Lynchburg, VA, with baby Iris.
Preceptors - experienced nurses like Anne Norwood (seen here with baby Iris in 2018) who mentor students - make clinical rotations rich and varied learning environments. Even during a pandemic.

When coronavirus shuttered the University, the nursing school, and much of UVA Health last spring, 95 advanced practice nursing students on track to graduate grew increasingly anxious: would they have the clinical hours they’d need to earn their degrees?

But thanks to the work of their devoted preceptors—experienced nurse mentors who oversee students’ clinical practice with patients at healthcare organizations across Virginia—nearly 95 percent of them were able to graduate without interruption, on time, and be eligible to sit for their certification exams.

"When the coronavirus pandemic threatened pretty much everything, UVA preceptors kept doing what nurses have always done: give care where it is needed most, including care of graduate students."

Clareen Wiencek, director of advanced practice programs

“Preceptors absolutely made the difference in keeping our advanced practice nursing students on track, and getting them out into the workforce at a time when they are desperately needed,” said professor Clareen Wiencek, who directs the advanced practice MSN and DNP programs. “When facilities closed, limited their hours, or patient loads dried up, many did all they could to continue working with students by adjusting schedules, reorienting care, taking on additional mentees—even using telehealth patient encounters to accrue direct patient care hours.

Nurse Dea Mahanes, a nurse and preceptor for UVA Nursing students. Many, including preceptors Melissa Gomes and Kathy Tierney, psychiatric nurse practitioners, supported students by keeping them engaged without interruption. Gomes, who directs the Hampton, Va.-based Transitions Empowerment Associates, a mental health clinic, mentored students throughout COVID, unabated, as did Tierney, of Richmond Behavioral Health Authority. Neel Nene, a psychiatrist in Northern Virginia, supported his APRN student until she’d completed all her requirements while Anne Norwood, a pediatric nurse practitioner at Lynchburg-based Johnson Health Center, also ensured that her student’s learning continued. Dea Mahanes (left) and Amy Johnston, both clinical nurse  specialists, collaborated to ensure their student could complete hours on time at UVA’s Neurosurgery and Spine Center while Lisa Letzkus, a nurse practitioner with UVA Children’s Hospital, also kept her clinic’s door open to students when many other sites shut down, additionally helping students  gain experience and confidence in telemedicine.

“Again, and again,” reported prof. Tracy Kelly, coordinator of the pediatric-acute care nurse practitioner program, “students remark on what an outstanding site the developmental pediatric consult service is for their learning, and how patient and helpful Lisa is to their learning objectives.”

Acute care nurse practitioner David Strider (right), long a beloved preceptor at UVA Health and celebrated for his creativity and skill, even accepted additional students who’d returned to UVA due to outside site closings, Nurse practitioner David Strider, a preceptor for UVA Nursing advanced practice students. fulfilling their immediate need for practicum hours so they might earn their degrees on time. That was true of Ann Turman, too, a nurse practitioner with UVA Transplant Services, who offered additional clinical space to students in need of practice hours despite the many clinical responsibilities she already juggled, while Amanda Simmons (below left), a clinical nurse specialist at UVA Health’s TCVICU, doubled up the number of students she precepted to help out. Melissa Elliott, of UVA Health’s inpatient behavioral services, allowed two students in need of clinical hours a site to practice in the early days of COVID, while physician Rob Marsh and nurse practitioner Sheree Fravel, of Middlebrook Family Medicine in Middlebrook, Va., took on a second student who needed to complete clinical hours. Gaby Ford, a family and acute care nurse practitioner with UPG’s surgical acute care and trauma specialty, graciously accepted additional nurse practitioner students while nurse Paul Merrel, also a UVA clinical nurse specialist, “was more flexible than Gumby in helping precept students who needed hours,” reported professor Beth Quatrara, adult-gerontology clinical nurse specialist coordinator.

Others, like Carol Vincel, a UVA Health acute care nurse practitioner, got creative with their direct supervision. Vincel found time to craft and create a proposal tailored to her student’s individual needs, work that Mary Dievert, a clinical instructor and acute care nurse practitioner, called “praiseworthy.”

Some preceptors even opened up their homes. Alumni council member and nurse practitioner Thornton Beale of RVA Pediatrics hosted her student mentee in the guest room of her home to facilitate her “ability to accumulate needed hours and reduce the time she needed to commute,” reported associate professor Terri Yost and clinical instructor Christian Simmers, coordinator of the family nurse practitioner program.UVA Health nurse Amanda Simmons, who precepts UVA Nursing advanced practice students.

Many advanced practice students gained valuable experience in telemedicine during the early months of COVID. UVA Health’s acute care nurse practitioner Allison Kirkner offered to allow students to work with the hospital’s newly developed COVID Telehealth NP assessment team, for which she was concurrently developing a structure and process. That was true of Jeanel Little, an advanced practice nurse practitioner with UVA Health’s department of pulmonary critical care medicine, who allowed students with practice limitations to complete their practicum with the NP COVID Telehealth program. Students working with pediatric nurse practitioner Connie Paczkowski, of UVA Culpeper Pediatrics, also learned to see patients via telemedicine, as she remained committed to their success.

Said Amy Boitnott, pediatric nurse practitioner coordinator and an assistant professor, “unless a mandate came down that students were no longer allowed in the practice, Connie told us she would continue to host our student, which she did.”

Dozens more preceptors tended the educational, mental, and emotional wellbeing of advanced practice students in ways that not only taught but inspired, said Wiencek, who said graduation was a success because of their incredible work.

“Because of the efforts of this group and many others,” she said, “our students graduated and hit the ground running at a time when our region—our nation, and our world—needs them more than ever. When the coronavirus pandemic threatened pretty much everything, UVA preceptors kept doing what nurses have always done – give care where it is needed most – including care of graduate students.

“There’s nothing quite like a devoted preceptor,” added Wiencek.