Students in The University of Texas-Pan American's nursing program offered a helping hand over the summer during the annual Operation Lone Star health clinics held at various locations throughout the Rio Grande Valley. This was the first time UTPA's nursing students participated in the event.
Operation Lone Star, run by the Texas Department of State Health Services, Texas State Guard Medical Brigade and local health departments, offers a variety of services to residents, including vision and hearing testing, as well as immunization shots for children returning to school.
At the Operation Lone Star event at Pharr-San Juan-Alamo (PSJA) High School, UTPA's nursing students helped translate for patients and medical staff. They also were the only ones certified to conduct vision screenings, said Dr. Orelia Herrera Erdem, a specialist in UTPA's Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) program and the students' instructor.
"This is a tremendous experience for our students to get real-life, hands-on experience prior to graduation," Erdem said.
Students who participated in the weeklong health fair are expected to graduate in December, she said.
"The fact that they're seeing the real issues, the real disease processes, the real people with handicaps or disabilities, real people they're not seeing in the hospital bed, they're out in the community," she said. "So it becomes very evident because, unfortunately, a lot of us are used to seeing people in the hospital already sick ... we need to treat the whole person."
Operation Lone Star also provided an opportunity for UTPA and its nursing students to give back to the community and show local and state health care providers their capabilities, Erdem added.
She said she hopes UTPA nursing students will be able to participate in future Operation Lone Star events.
Organizers of Operation Lone Star were impressed with UTPA's nursing students, said Arianna Vazquez-Hernandez, public information officer for the PSJA Independent School District who also served as public information officer for Operation Lone Star at PSJA High School.
"Operation Lone Star is a program that provides free medical services for our community and surrounding communities, and here at PSJA we do have a high need of community members who sometimes lack the regular doctor's visits and don't really do their annual checkups the way they should," Vazquez-Hernandez said. "This is a great venue for them to come every year, and because our area is one of the largest ones in the Valley, we do need the help from our nursing students, and UTPA's nursing students have been extremely helpful in helping us as we get new patients every morning. ... They've been instrumental in our success."
The PSJA High School site received about 1,000 patients throughout the week, Vazquez-Hernandez said.
Nursing students said they were grateful for the opportunity to work with patients and show the medical community their abilities.
Ela Villarreal, a BSN student from Rio Grande City, said she loves helping her community and is glad that her ability to speak and write in Spanish has benefitted the health fair.
"I think it's very important for us to be able to reach out ... to the community" Villarreal said. "I love helping people, it's my No. 1 passion, and I think helping people is the most important thing to me ... being able to talk with the patients, getting to know them being able to help them and see them progress and get better."
For Eduardo Rios, a BSN student from Houston, participating in Operation Lone Star is a special event for the former U.S. Army combat medic.
"I get to see people who are actively in the military," Rios said. "Since I was in the military, it brings back a lot of memories and I start remembering that I was involved in these types of operations when I was on duty."
He also appreciates how Operation Lone Star provided him and fellow students with so much experience.
"It's exciting because you get to have hands-on experience, other than in the usual hospital setting, you get to see how to work with the whole community, you get to see all ages in one place," he said. "There is no other event in the Valley that takes place over a one-week span, you usually see patients for one or two days. This is the only event where you get to see the same type of patient over a whole week."
Rios, who also has 18 years experience as a surgical technologist and seven years working in a hospital cardiac catheterization laboratory, said he and other students plan to ask local health departments if they can take on more responsibilities next year, especially administering immunizations, which they are trained to do.