Spring break brings to mind beaches, vacations and sleeping in, but for seven Auburn University nursing students and 10 Auburn University at Montgomery nursing students it included a week spent at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center as part of the launch of Project SERVE.
Project SERVE is a collaboration between Walter Reed, AU and AUM supporting long-term care for veterans by creating a way for civilian nurses and health care organizations to understand and meet the needs of those veterans.
“What we sought to do is really bigger than just an experience,” said Dr. Libba McMillan, associate professor at the AU School of Nursing. “We’ve got the actual student experience, which is Project SERVE, but we also have a Project INNOVATE, which is to infuse what we’ve learned into impacting care for civilian and military members in our community.”
For the students to get the most out of their trip to Walter Reed, the project collaborators (which included McMillan, retired CDR David Crumbley and Dr. Marilyn Rhodes of AUM) had the students be completely immersed in the experience — from touring the city and presenting facts about monuments to eating breakfast with soldiers’ families each morning on campus and interacting with troops on a daily basis.
“They stayed on campus and were there to see the wounded that had gotten discharged, but were not totally integrated back into the community, as some stay at Walter Reed up to two years rehabbing before they can go back into the community,” said Crumbley.
McMillan said letting the students tour the city gave them empathy for the troops’ families.
“It opened their eyes to how expansive it is for family members that come into that big of a city. We tried to integrate elements such as that to holistically view the experience outside of the actual hospital,” she said.
Inside the hospital, the nursing students observed the staff and mingled with soldiers in five clinical areas: mental health (including post-combat disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD), tramautic brain center, ICU and surgical floor, as well as the amputee center.
Beth Baker, a senior nursing student graduating in August, was amazed at her time spent in these different wards of the hospital.
“I had not had the opportunity to see the level of treatment that was being provided at Walter Reed, so that was really great,” she said. “One specific part was the prosthetics and amputation care — you know, I’d never seen anything like that before. It was so interesting to me and helped me to understand the ability to overcome amputations and really see the high quality of life people with those injuries can have.”
The time spent at Walter Reed with the veterans showed Baker how she could adjust her long-term care services to better meet the needs of wounded warriors, not just civilians.
“In the future, regardless of what unit I may be on, asking a patient if they’ve been active in military service is important,” she said. “There’s a chance there are medical issues you need to pay closer attention to, and it’s important to establish if they’ve served in combat.
“The thing that inspired me most was the determination the soldiers showed; it didn’t matter what they’d been through, they still wanted to serve their country. They were not only receptive to us, but helpful by just explaining things that were going on (at Walter Reed).”
Crumbley said the response of the soldiers was powerful in that they told their stories to students and tried to help however they could.
“When they got done (telling their stories), they said, ‘I want you to go forward, and I want you to help my buddies,’ ” said Crumbley. “They discussed their problems, because they thought this was a way to help their peers and friends.”
The plan is to schedule similar trips for students in the future, and McMillan said Walter Reed has already committed to allowing that.
McMillan is working on obtaining data from the students to see the best ways to move forward with Project SERVE and wider outreach.