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University of Texas at El Paso nursing students hit the road to understand healthcare need in rural areas


Nine nursing students in a rural nursing class at The University of Texas at El Paso traveled to three rural Texas locations to witness firsthand the need for healthcare providers in underserved areas. Last summer, UTEP Clinical Assistant Professor Dayle Sharp, RN, MSN, PhD, toured the Texas towns of Dell City, Sierra Blanca and Fort Hancock with the students.

“They got to [see]what rural services are actually out there, which are pretty much none,” Sharp, a rural health family nurse practitioner since 1999, said in an article on UTEP’s website. “For the most part, they come into El Paso.”

Before the trip, Sharp showed the class videos of Appalachia in the eastern U.S. and other underserved communities, but students said the lack of medical care available in the areas they visited still was surprising.

“It’s a rude awakening for students. They’re used to everything being right nearby,” Sharp said in the article.

In Dell City, the class learned the town’s only clinic closed earlier in the year, leaving residents without emergency medical care in the case of an injury. Residents’ injuries often are related to accidents involving farming equipment, according to the article.

According to Sharp, the town ambulance is driven by volunteers who have limited certification and lack medical training. “The [ambulance personnel]can’t even start an IV out there,” she said in the online article. “They’re not trained. What they do is they take patients to Highway [62], where they meet another ambulance. They park on the side of the highway, transfer the patient, and [emergency medical technicians]start an IV and then transport them to El Paso.”

Students rode in the town’s ambulance, pretending to be patients.

Dell City Mayor Marcy Guillen said the experience was a real eye-opener for the future nurses.

“I am sure they did not realize what really rural nursing was all about,” Guillen said in the article. “I do hope that whatever they do, at least one of them will consider going into a rural nursing career.”

When students arrived at Fort Hancock’s only clinic, they began packing boxes of food for 250 families living in the surrounding rural areas. The clinic is open Monday through Friday and is staffed by a medical technician. A physician’s assistant is available two days a week. Community health staff focus on preventive healthcare such as educating the public about exercise and nutrition.

For Cassandra Gonzalez, a sixth semester nursing student, the trip left her considering a career in rural nursing. “This class is a fantastic way for students to get exposed to the tremendous difference in healthcare and what people in these communities are faced with,” Gonzalez said in the article.

Sharp, who started her career by training in a state prison, also took the class to the West Texas Detention Facility at Sierra Blanca, which houses federal immigration detainees.

The facility is staffed by an RN, a licensed vocational nurse, a medical assistant, a pharmacist and a dental assistant. A doctor is on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, but only visits the prison on Fridays. Students learned the detainees have a high incidence of diabetes, back pain and high blood pressure.

“Sierra Blanca was just a completely new experience, being able to go into the detention center and see how nursing is performed in that type of setting,” sixth semester student Jessica Tysz said.

Sharp agrees the firsthand experience makes a big difference. “Studies show that if you teach somebody about the rural area and expose it to them, they are more apt to choose it as an option,” Sharp said. “We need nurses out there so badly.”


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