Last summer, Megan Messa began researching the experiences of fellow Viterbo University students who worked as certified nursing assistants (CNA) during the COVID-19 pandemic. She was a perfect person to do so because she certainly had profound and unique experiences of her own.
“It was mind-bending when a patient who is bedridden and can’t talk becomes extremely aggressive,” Messa said of her work as a CNA in a nursing home memory unit. “They are humans, too, and their condition was exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. You could see firsthand their continual decline because they weren’t getting the social interaction they needed.”
This and many other stories and testimonials were collected as part of Messa’s research. She found that many participants found sharing to be meaningful, often hearing comments such as “thank you for hearing my stories, no one has asked before.”
“I thought my experiences were worth sharing and I wanted other people’s stories to be heard as well,” said Messa, a Hayward local who will graduate from Viterbo in May with a degree in nursing and a minor in religious studies. “In addition to the traumatic things I heard, they also shared how they got through it and if it still affects them. Those type of experiences can be a lot for young adults to deal with, especially for those who weren’t necessarily equipped or ready.”
Messa began this research as part of Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship with Viterbo faculty member Matthew Bersagel Braley.
“The origins of this project began early in the pandemic when we shifted to online teaching and many students ended up taking on more shifts as CNAs, often in short-staffed facilities in their home communities,” Bersagel Braley said. “I asked them to reflect on those experiences in final papers for my ethics and medicine courses. It was humbling, heartbreaking, and inspiring to read about the central, but underappreciated, role of our students in caring for vulnerable members of their communities under extremely difficult circumstances.”
This research will continue with additional and more diverse experiences drawn from students across the country thanks to a $28,000 grant Bersagel Braley received from the Louisville Institute.
The project, “From Whence Does Their Help Come? The Religious ‘Nones’ as Caregivers during the COVID-19 Pandemic,” explores the resources college-age CNAs are drawing on to make sense of their role as caregivers during this time including their religious and spiritual views.
It will be carried out by an interdisciplinary faculty and student research team including students Messa (the lead student researcher), Lexi Oestreich, Jerica Mueller, Faith Meltz, and Raghad al-Khazraji and faculty members Tyler Flockhart, sociology, and Silvana Richardson, nursing.
While publishing academic journal articles and a book are long-term goals, Bersagel Braley sees the real value of the project in helping CNAs share their stories in ways that can shape conversations in nursing schools, care facilities, and even congregations about ways to support aspects of CNA care work that are less visible and often go unacknowledged.
Messa, who has accepted a nursing position at Duke University Hospital upon graduation from Viterbo, recently spent a week in North Carolina collecting more CNA experiences as part of the project. She said being a part of this project has greatly enhanced her education.
“This is something I care deeply about, and it lines up closely with my values,” she said. “I think this project has been incredibly valuable, and not something every college student gets to experience.”