Financial Planning

Nursing in the Time of COVID

This health care professional warns that the pandemic will worsen the nursing shortage.

Leah Gordon, 43, lives in Hugo, Minn., and directs the nurse anesthetist program at St. Mary's University of Minnesota. Kiplinger's talked to her about the challenges created by COVID 19 for nurse anesthetists and the problem student nurses--and the health care industry—are facing because they can't complete their bedside clinicals.

What does a nurse anesthetist do? When you heard about patients with COVID getting breathing tubes, it was primarily nurse anesthetists manning those intensive care units, placing the lines to give the medications and putting the breathing tubes between the vocal cords into their lungs.

How has the pandemic affected your job? My full-time job is as a professor and the nurse anesthetist program director at St. Mary’s University of Minnesota. I did work one day a week at an outpatient gastro­enterology center. In order to be a really good instructor, it’s important to keep my skills fresh.

Your side gig is on hold? When COVID hit, the first thing our governor did was suspend elective surgeries. Plus, they wanted all the personal protective equipment brought to a central location. That meant we couldn’t do any cases because we couldn’t use our gowns, we couldn’t use our shields and we couldn’t use our masks.

You must have taken a financial hit. A nurse anesthetist out of school right now is earning $180,000 to $190,000. I feel like a jerk even talking about it because I’m very, very fortunate, but when you lose that side hustle, all of a sudden $50,000 is gone. I earn too much as a professor to qualify for unemployment. But I have a $1,900-a-month student loan payment, and to not have my side job right now is challenging—and I’m not sure if I’m going to get it back.

What about the rest of your family? My partner is a registered nurse who works for the same surgery center—that’s how we met. He was furloughed for a few months, but now he’s back at work.

Will your students be able to graduate? We’re still figuring it out. Right now, most classes are online, and it’s really hard to learn a medical specialty at your house. You have to be able to do lab work and learn skills with your instructor side by side with you. We don’t really have simulation capability to teach our students how to put in an epidural or a spinal. At a minimum, our students have to complete 2,000 hours of bedside care, and our program is only 2 1/2 years long. We’re talking about whether we’re going to add a semester and try to create some credits for them so they can qualify for student loans.

Do you think COVID will affect the health care system longer term? I’m very concerned about everybody being able to get to the bedside and through their training. If you look at the nursing shortage in the country right now—which is only projected to get bigger—to not have nurses getting their clinicals, we’re going to have some workforce issues. 

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