When the COVID-19 pandemic effectively paused all established clinical sites for St. Catherine University Radiation Therapy students in the spring of 2020, the program director Laura Peterson, MAEd, RT(R)(T) and clinical coordinator Cassandra Donahue, MHA, RT(T)(ARRT) were concerned. “The American Registry of Radiologic Technologists (AART)—our program’s accreditors and certification organization— does not allow for lab classes or virtual education to serve in place of clinical experience for our students,” says Donahue. Without completing the required clinical hours with external partners, radiation therapy students would have to wait until clinical sites allowed them to participate again, delaying their graduation. As radiation therapy student Larissa Eckholm ’20, RTT, eloquently says about the possible delay, “I couldn't help but feel frustrated that part of my education was being prolonged as was the start to the career that I loved.”
To try and mitigate this problem, the radiation therapy faculty and staff worked hard to help students try and find clinical opportunities outside St. Kate’s established clinical site partnerships. With the program administrator’s guidance, three students found placement outside of Minnesota—two in North Dakota, one in Illinois. Getting the accreditor’s approval and contracts signed for the three out-of-state sites was not easy. The radiation therapy faculty worked tirelessly to bring these sites up to speed about St. Kate’s radiation therapy program and their rigorous expectations for student clinical placement, and her hard work paid off. “We wouldn't have been able to resume all our students by this fall if we hadn't created these new affiliations,” Donahue says. Eckholm, who finished her clinical experience at Trinity Health CancerCare Center in Minot, North Dakota, says, “My program director, Laura Peterson, and clinical coordinator, Cassandra Donahue, were so supportive throughout and went above and beyond to ensure that I would graduate and get the best education possible. They, along with everyone at Trinity, made what initially seemed like an unfair and disappointing situation transform into a rewarding and exciting experience.”
Radiation oncology supervisor Gina Eickelschulte, RT (R)(T), at Blessing Health in Quincy, Illinois—one of these out of state clinics that worked with St. Kate’s radiation therapy department—says of the experience, “The St. Kate’s staff and faculty wanted the program and students to be successful, so I felt very comfortable reaching out to the St. Kate’s staff for any issues we encountered. The St. Kate’s radiation therapy student who worked with us was well-versed and adapted to the daily changes, which were prevalent in the beginning of the pandemic.”
Even though some of the students’ clinicals were still delayed due to the pandemic, the entire cohort finished their degrees by December 2020 and have already taken or are planning to take the ARRT certification exam. “We are entirely grateful to these [out-of-state] sites, and the students got such great experience,” says Donahue.
Eckholm completed her clinical hours and received her board certification shortly after graduation. “I am now working my dream job at the forefront of radiation oncology treatments at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN as a radiation therapist in proton therapy,” says Eckholm. “I am so grateful for my education at St. Catherine University and the many professors, fellow students, and therapists/other radiation oncology staff that helped me throughout my long journey that led me to where I am today.”