The College of St. Scholastica on Wednesday announced nearly $4 million in grants toward a new nursing initiative in partnership with Essentia Health and upgraded training and facilities for nursing students.

St. Scholastica’s School of Nursing has received a $2.79 million grant from the federal Health Resources and Services Administration, while the White Bear Lake, Minn.-based Manitou Fund has pledged $1.125 million to the school.

Respectively, the investments make up the largest public and private grants in the school’s 108-year history.

The federal grant will fund a new four-year program called the Advanced Nurse Education Workforce (ANEW) Initiative, which aims to address primary workforce shortages in rural and underserved communities and recruit and retain nursing graduates. Funding will help connect nurse practitioners at Essentia Health with nursing students at St. Scholastica in clinical settings.

The grant also includes education for both nurse practitioners and nursing students to better prepare them to manage behavior health and opioid addiction concerns. Students also will gain experience in telehealth, a method of delivering care remotely, and cultural fluency, which focuses on patients’ diverse backgrounds.

“I am very proud to note that St. Scholastica is the only recipient of a grant of this type in all of Minnesota,” St. Scholastica President Dr. Barbara McDonald said during a news conference Wednesday in Duluth. “The federal government's endorsement of our nursing program is clear evidence of our strong record of accomplishments and academic standards of excellence.”

Dr. David Herman, Essentia Health’s chief executive officer, said patients will benefit the most from the ANEW Initiative.

“ANEW will, over the next four years, provide Essentia Health with a better-prepared nurse practitioner workforce,” he said. “Our current and future nurses will gain expertise in primary care, particularly the ambulatory and walk-in primary care. That's what's really growing today's health care market.”

The private Manitou Fund grant, meanwhile, will help St. Scholastica complete a series of major renovations to its nursing program’s learning spaces, including two new state-of-the-art simulation labs featuring advanced medical training dolls, or manikins.

The renovations are expected to be finished by spring 2021 and will add to St. Scholastica’s two existing skills labs and three existing acute care simulation labs.

Hands-on experience

Nursing student Natalie Noble demonstrated a care simulation at St. Scholastica on Wednesday morning. The junior from Superior stood over a medical manikin named Apollo, which lay in a hospital bed — blinking its eyes, almost lifelike to the touch — while a student in a separate control room provided Apollo’s voice and watched Noble’s progress on a video monitor.

“You have a little bit of a cough? Are you breathing OK?” she asked Apollo.

“Not so great,” replied Apollo, who ostensibly was recovering from hip surgery.

“OK, I’m going to raise the head of the bed a little bit,” Noble said. “You let me know if that helps.”

Noble went on to check Apollo’s legs and incision site. A monitor next to the bed provided the doll’s vital signs.

During the simulation, other students can watch events on a screen from a separate debriefing room, and they can discuss the simulations with their professors afterward.

Noble said the experience has been invaluable, especially as simulations grow in frequency and complexity over time.

“This is so great, because after our first clinical rotation, this seems real,” she said. “You get every (scenario).”

Equally helpful is Noble’s role as one of the student simulation technicians who stage the manikins for training.

“We do all the behind-the-scenes stuff, like getting respiratory equipment, making sure crash carts are loaded,” she said. “It's just good as a nursing student to be able to see this stuff. You recognize supplies better. You're able to watch your cohort do these skills and improve. This has been extremely helpful.”

Dr. Sheryl Sandahl, dean of St. Scholastica's School of Nursing, said as many as 350 nursing students will use the renovated labs when they’re finished.

“I can't overstate the significant impact that (the Manitou Fund grant) will have on our nursing students,” Sandahl said Wednesday. “In the world of health care education, simulation has become an integral element of preparing all levels of professionals. There is simply no substitute for hands-on experience.”