Shelley Price sees the coronavirus outbreak through three different viewpoints.
First as a UNLV doctoral student. Then as an ER nurse. The third as the associate dean of nursing for a community college in Washington State, one of the hotspots of the coronavirus outbreak in the United States.
Price is living each title simultaneously. She weaves in and out of each role, coupling expertise as a practicing nurse with her newer roles as an administrator and student researcher.
The hands-on expert
Price works as an ER nurse on the weekends at a Washington State hospital, though she’s been an ER nurse for a decade.
Looking at the direct impact of an outbreak can be unsettling. When the hospital encountered its first COVID-19 positive patient, “the bottom just fell out,” she recalls the collective feeling. “You do the best you can to protect yourself and others, but you’re going into a war zone.”
Equipment shortages are unfortunately commonplace. Price has worked shifts without enough personal protective equipment, questioning management to make sure she and her fellow nurses are safe.
“I’m happy to go to the frontline and fight the fight as long as I have the appropriate protection,” she said.
As an experienced nurse, Price views having a nursing student in the ER during a pandemic a little different from her role as an educator.
“It’s too high stress for all the frontline staff to deal with (teaching students at the same time),” she said. “I’m torn because I think what an amazing experience for nursing students to have to go through this, but you have to ensure safety of the students and patients.”
Price took on the associate dean position before she enrolled in the UNLV School of Nursing’s doctoral program. She works at Skagit Valley College, 30 minutes north of Everett, where the first U.S. COVID-19 patient was identified.
Like most academic leaders, Price is working without a playbook during the coronavirus pandemic. It’s uncharted work, she says, and yet, not unfamiliar.
“I think the fact I have emergency background is helpful,” she said. “I’m used to dealing in gray and making quick decisions with the information you have. It’s like constant triage.”
Price has 12 full-time faculty and another dozen associate or adjunct faculty to manage, all with different technical skillsets. In the past, the fact that some still used flip phones or didn’t have laptops simply wasn’t a problem for in-person instruction. She worked with her faculty daily to make sure everyone has a computer with internet access as the community college transitioned to remote instruction and implemented more virtual simulations.
In addition to her master’s in nursing, Price also has a master’s in public health (one of her first jobs was as an epidemiologist). This proved to be a critical experience at the beginning of March, when her fellow college leaders projected an April 24 return to in-person classes.
“I said ‘No, it’s not going to happen. I’m not planning for any nursing classes to have anything in-person until at least May 18th and I’m not holding my breath on that.’”
She added, “The college has done a really great job to have contingencies, but you’re also dealing with people who don’t necessarily have that healthcare background, that frontline background.”
But that added experience also means added pressure as people turn to her for guidance. At the same time, she seeks out expertise from others.
“When I get stumped, I look at who are my resources that can help me navigate this, but I also try not to get flustered and think about who would know and how can I ask them.”
One example is when Price tried to figure out how to tell her students about the plan for next quarter. She reached out to her doctoral dissertation chair, UNLV professor Karyn Holt, who suggested she record a video for her students. Price also reached out to another key person for help, her 12-year-old son, who filmed a three-and-a half-minute video. She posted it on Canvas and emailed her students.
“I can’t imagine how unsure and scared (the students) are,” she said. “I told them in the video, ‘This is an example of why nursing is so important. It’s one of the most noble profession. While this is scary, we will get through this.’”
Price says she always wanted to get her terminal degree, and ultimately chose to become a nurse educator over public health.
“Whether you’re a nurse who can lead an education school, or a nurse who does research, once you’re a nurse, you’re a nurse. It’s in your blood.”
She was attracted to UNLV’s nationally recognized online graduate programs for its faculty’s experience, staff support, and the option of learning remotely to fit her schedules
“Nurses are so crucial for patient education and for good patient outcomes,” she said. “If you discharge somebody from the ER and they have COVID-19, patient education falls on the nurse. If they don’t appropriately educate them, or have a good rapport with the clinician, or have those moments of valuable teaching, there’s going to be a bad outcome for that patient and the community.”
Price credits the doctoral program for giving her new ideas as an associate dean, like how to better train and support her faculty using different educational philosophies, nursing theories, and new technology. One of her classes at UNLV is educational evaluation, which involves testing design and assessments of student learning and nursing.
The addition of a doctoral program, on top of being an associate dean and a nurse, might seem perplexing to some. Price says it’s critical to decompressing, because she enjoys it.
“People ask, ‘How can you do this Ph.D.? How do you have time?’ And I said, this is the first time in some years I’ve done something for myself that I’ve always wanted to do. It’s a joy to do, even though it’s hard. I will exponentially improve so many nurses in the area, because I’ll learn and make the program better and that, in turn, will help the nursing care be better.”
Managing the chaos
Price manages multiple roles in highly stressful situations, but it’s because her experiences are so different that she can manage the workload. It helps her shut off one responsibility to focus on the next.
“When I leave my shift at the ER, I clock out and leave,” she said “As associate dean, I never really leave that responsibility. For the Ph.D., I can put my books away and then look at them the next day.”
She gives the same advice to others that her mentors have given to her: Make sure you take care of yourself to avoid burnout.
She lives an extraordinarily busy life, but that’s not by chance.
“One of the things I learned in my life is a mediocre life is not worth living,” she said. “I was raised [with the motto] as long as you do your best, that’s all you can do. I’ve always just tried to do my best. That’s how I live my life every day.”