MADISON – Wisconsin National Guard Sgt. Andrew Hemaidan may have settled his career path during the training for his next mission — becoming a nursing aide in order to help relieve the burden on the state’s nursing homes.
Hemaidan, 25, is one of 80 guard members who volunteered to undergo the 75-hour course that will allow them to go into nursing homes and work under the direction of registered nurses already in facilities, allowing the facilities to open up more space for patients in need of long-term care.
He was previously helping to administer COVID tests at Fort McCoy but jumped at the opportunity to receive the nursing aide training, as he’s always been interested in pursuing health care as a career.
“This is an amazing opportunity to get my foot in the door and kind of get myself a little bit in the weeds in the medical field,” he said. “I’m trying to go to school for it either later this year or starting next year.”
About 230 guard members will undergo training to become nursing aides in the coming months, in hopes of easing the strain on the health care system as COVID-19 numbers remain high in the state.
The guard members are undergoing 75 hours in nursing aide courses at Madison College, learning how to assist patients in nursing homes with everything from getting around the facility to bathing and changing clothes.
Since the start of the pandemic, nursing homes in Wisconsin have decommissioned 1,600 beds across the state because of staffing shortages, leaving gaps in care that the guard members are hoping to fill.
As a result of those decommissions, hundreds of patients are lingering in hospital beds — sometimes for months — because they can neither be discharged nor moved to a staffed care center. And now, COVID-19 is surging again in Wisconsin while hospitals grapple with staff burnout as the coronavirus pandemic enters its 24th month.
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Dr. LisaMarie Greenwood, the associate dean of nursing at Madison College, said the school gladly accepted the opportunity to educate the guard members in order to help strained health workers all over the state.
“We know, understand and have witnessed the stressors placed on the health care industry. There are shortages at every level of preparation and nursing, and particularly nursing assistants,” she said. “With the advent of COVID, we knew that the industry was stressed even more and so we are excited about the opportunity to work collaboratively.”
In long-term care facilities, officials say the burnout and fatigue workers are experiencing exacerbate long-standing staffing challenges that grew, in part, because the facilities haven’t paid salaries that can compete with employers in less stressful environments.
“I believe it’s extremely important to fill these vacancies, just because there is the weight of the world on the shoulders of our medical staff in our state and across the country right now,” Hemaidan said. “And I think it’s really important that we lend every hand that we can to help combat the current situation that we’re in.”
Capt. H. Howey, who is overseeing the 80 guard members undergoing training, said Hemaidan isn’t the only one who is now considering making a career move into the medical field after their deployment, either. About 20 people have made comments to him about potentially sticking with it.
“They’re all taking this seriously, but there are a lot of people that are taking it to heart, to potentially after mission completion to continue on with this,” he said.
Once the guard members complete the 75 hours of free online and in-person training, they will be dispatched to the care facilities. After their deployment, they’ll be able to take the certified nursing aide exams for official state certification and continue the work outside of the mission
Hemaidan said the pace of the course work is fast, but nothing the members can’t handle after the last two years of helping to address the pandemic in Wisconsin.
“We’re pretty used to high-paced environments and fast-paced learning,” he said.
In addition to the 80 members currently undergoing the training, another 50 last week were able to complete their course work and were dispatched across the state to where they were needed. Ten members were sent to Green Bay, where they made 20 new beds available at the Odd Fellow nursing home, allowing Bellin Hospital to discharge patients to the facility.
After the current members are dispatched to nursing homes, another group of roughly 80 guard members will then go through the training at Madison College.
‘Different roles than we signed up for’
Like other points in the pandemic, Gov. Tony Evers is turning to the guard to fill holes in staffing created by COVID-19 infections, related burnout or fear of becoming infected. Since March 2020, the guard has been deployed to work at polling locations, to assist medical examiners and to assist in COVID-19 testing and vaccination centers.
It’s been an unprecedented couple of years for the National Guard, said Wisconsin National Guard spokesman Maj. Joe Trovato, with the continued need for aid due to the pandemic, on top of other missions like fighting wildfires out west, responding to civil unrest in places like Madison and Kenosha and deployments overseas.
“The tempo has certainly been high,” he said.
This mission is requiring a lot of learning on the part of the guard members, Trovato said, but it’s been handled with honor and determination.
“Maybe these are different roles than what we signed up for, but ultimately, we all put the uniform on and because we want to serve our state and our communities and our nation at a time of need,” he said. “We really pride ourselves on being a professional, adaptable and flexible force that can really be tailored to whatever the state’s needs are.”
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