Courtney Armstrong probably would not have earned the nickname of the “Leech Whisperer” or “Leech Wrangler” if it weren’t for her Professional Student Nurse Externship at MD Anderson this summer.
Going into her final year of a bachelor’s program at Prairie View A&M University College of Nursing after a 10-week rotation on an inpatient floor dedicated to patients who had delicate head and neck, as well as reconstructive surgeries, Armstrong is convinced she made the right career choice with nursing, and she knows she’ll be a step ahead of her classmates this fall.
Mentored by clinical nurse and preceptor Rachel Lantz, 21-year-old Armstrong is one of 30 nursing students selected for the summer program that includes classroom study, outside speakers and one-on-one bedside coaching. This year, more than 250 students applied for the summer positions.
For Rosa Semien, who leads both the summer and year-long externship programs, the most obvious reward comes in the final weeks when the students reflect on their experiences, both personally and professionally.
“For so long, MD Anderson was not a place student nurses wanted to come, but now they are begging to participate. It’s very rewarding throughout the 10-week summer program and the extended year-long program to see the students’ confidence in their skills rise and hear how beautifully they speak about their patients and the nurses who mentor them,” Semien says. “You can track how they mature as individuals and as nurses.”
Learning to think critically, compassionately
For Armstrong, whose aunt is being treated for thyroid cancer at MD Anderson, one of the many lessons she learned was to always be patient and calm. That’s one of the ways she earned her nickname: holding the hand and giving reassurance to patients who were treated using medicinal leeches. She says she learned this valuable lesson from her preceptor (mentor), who taught her to work with the ancient remedy and by her example as an outstanding clinical nurse.
“All the nurses on the floor have been so helpful and so great, especially Rachel. I’m hoping I can come back very soon so they don’t miss me,” she laughs. “I learned so much this summer. I’m so grateful for the experience.”
Franklin Wynn is one of Armstrong’s classmates at Prairie View A&M and another summer extern.
Working in MD Anderson’s Intensive Care Unit, Wynn says one of the greatest insights he gained from the experience was how much he really wanted to be a nurse.
“When I came to MD Anderson at the beginning of the summer, I was 100% convinced that I wanted to be a nurse,” says the Houston native, who also participated in MD Anderson’s outreach program as a high school senior and as a nursing student completing his clinicals. “When I left at the end of the 10 weeks, I was 200% sure.”
Wynn’s preceptor was Allison Starghill, a clinical nurse in the Intensive Care Unit for the last five years. He says she encouraged him to think constantly and critically, but also compassionately.
“The nurses that participate in this program as preceptors are so receptive and such great teachers. They know what a positive influence they can have on a nursing student,” Semien says. “Plus, it’s a way for them to give back to the profession they love and teach what they most value about nursing — the patients.”