November 09, 2017
Nursing student in front of Veterans Affairs hospital

Nursing Graduate Students Receive Hands-on Training While Helping Aging Veterans

When it was time to determine her professional specialty, recent School of Nursing graduate Melissa Budahazy found herself drawn to an underserved area: gerontology. Though the United States population is aging, the number of nurses and clinicians educated to serve older adults remains in short supply. By focusing her practice on geriatric populations, Budahazy, who completed her master of science in nursing in May, saw a way that she could make a difference and address a critical need.

“The gerontological population is very complex and requires specialized providers to partner with them,” Budahazy said. “The average numbers of medications for geriatric patients is nine or 10 and they see several providers, so their care can become easily fragmented. Geriatricians are well-equipped to care for overall well-being of a person and foresee complications before they arise, such as medication interactions.”

This desire to care for geriatric populations is what convinced Budahazy to study at The Catholic University of America, as part of the nursing school’s Adult - Gerontological Nurse Practitioner (AGNP) Program, one of only a few such programs in the United States. The AGNP program is designed to prepare advanced-practice nurses to manage the health of individuals from adolescence through old age.

As part of the program, students are required to complete more than 500 hours of clinical practice. Thanks to the nursing school’s partnership with the Washington District of Columbia VA Medical Center, Budahazy spent her hours serving elderly veterans at the hospital’s neurological, heart failure, and primary-care clinics.

“This program has really provided me with a broad range of clinical experiences with very complex patients living with multiple co-morbidities,” she said. “In any outpatient setting, your goal is to keep patients out of the hospital and that takes a lot of coordination with other providers and family and partnerships with patients. You’re trying to intervene early, and pick up on infections or reasons a patient could end up in unsafe situations. You really can build a long-term relationship with the patient.”

Deirdre Carolan Doerflinger is the project director for the academic partnership between the nursing school and the VA. She said the program provides AGNP students with hands-on training in a wide variety of clinical settings. Since the partnership began in 2016, students have had the opportunity to work in clinics specializing in ophthalmology, heart failure, renal disease, diabetes, neurology, and palliative care.

“The student stays in the system, but is rotated through various specializations,” Carolan Doerflinger said. “There are a wide variety of clinical opportunities at the VA.”

Assistant Professor Janet Selway said she has been impressed by the quality of education students receive while working at the VA.

“We have nurse practitioners there who are experts in chronic pain management or psychiatric disorders and students get exposure to that,” she said. “If you have that background, it’s going to be extremely valuable in your career.”

Following completion of the graduate program, students can choose to continue working at the VA as part of a 12-month residency program. That yearlong period serves as an opportunity for new nurse practitioners to gain experience and confidence while continuing to learn on the job. This year, Catholic University has three residents working at the VA, including Salwa “Susu” Habayeb, who works in the primary care clinic.

“The geriatric population gets overlooked, but we’re all going to get old,” she said. “I’ve always felt that you need just as good care at the end of life.”

For Habayeb, the year of residency at the VA has been an “invaluable” opportunity to work with veterans. She finds meaning in meeting their complex needs and has enjoyed working alongside experienced mentors. She says she hopes to continue working at the VA for years to come.

“This is my first time working with vets,” Habayeb said. “The patients have so many issues, psychosocially and physically, and that’s what drew me to this population. It feels like I’m serving an underserved population.”

Budahazy said she has also enjoyed working with veterans and serving her country in that way.

“I think that veterans have a lot of complex needs that require multidisciplinary care and that’s what I really love about it,” Budahazy said. “My dad is a Vietnam vet and I’m really honored to provide care to patients who are deserving of the best.”