It’s All Theoretical: Nursing Education in the Times of a Global Pandemic

Written by Vicki L. Ericson, DNP, ANP, FNP, Associate Professor at St. Catherine University

St. Catherine University was founded in 1905 by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet as a Catholic liberal arts college for women. Located in St. Paul, Minnesota, St. Catherine University prepares nurses at the baccalaureate, master’s, and clinical doctorate levels and offers eight programs of study.

Sun shining through front Gates of St. Catherine University with lots of beautiful trees and flowers

Living in Helicy

Helicy is one of the homeodynamic principles defined by Martha Rogers in The Science of Unitary Human Beings. Helicy describes the ever-present condition of unpredictability and change (Butcher, 2021). The unpredictable, unfolding patterns of the COVID-19 pandemic and the coinciding unrest over racial inequality that consumed 2020 are exceptional examples of Rogers’ concept of helicy. During those unprecedented occurrences, nurses lived in the “heart of helicy” (Butcher, 2002, p. 6) by acting intentionally and compassionately in the face of significant uncertainty and unpredictability. For most of the year, designated by the World Health Organization as the International Year of the Nurse and Midwife, nurses joined the frontlines to provide care and comfort to patients suffering from an extremely contagious and deadly virus, not knowing what that meant for their personal safety. As of April 7, 2021, 562 nurses in the U.S. who contracted COVID-19 after caring for patients affected with the disease had died, and a disproportionate number were nurses of color (The Guardian, 2021).

Learning Virtually

While not all nurses faced the same life and death situations, faculty in the Department of Nursing at St. Catherine University also joined forces swiftly and efficiently to continue providing excellence in nursing education, safely and compassionately, during the pandemic. Faculty scrambled to transition courses to online learning platforms and were committed to the same relationship-based education while adapting to the moving target of pandemic constraints.

Nursing faculty identified alternatives to replace the traditional clinical education experiences that were not available in local healthcare agencies due to increasing restrictions for students. In prelicensure programs, more frequent and more intense simulation activities were developed—both virtual and (when possible) in person. When several of our clinical partners suspended student nurse practitioner clinical rotations due to the pandemic, faculty advocated for precepted telehealth encounters in their own clinical practices. Students were offered opportunities to learn along with everyone else about the intricacies of providing virtual primary care. And like most of the nation, Zoom became our primary connection to family, friends, colleagues, and our students.

Caring Virtually

Two other helicy-type events simultaneously confronted Minnesota nurses in 2020. On May 25, George Floyd was killed in broad daylight by Minneapolis police, and people around the world viewed the gut-wrenching video of his murder. It was evident by then, according to pandemic statistics, that there was a disproportionate risk of serious illness for Black Americans infected with COVID-19, confirming what we as nurses already knew about social determinants of health. Our city was burning, and we felt defeated in our efforts toward social justice. The university closed, and all non-essential employees were asked to take two days off to reflect, help, and begin to heal.

Jean Watson’s Theory of Human Caring promotes the practice of authentic presence for caring and healing (Watson, 2005). During these volatile times, expressions of care such as holding another’s hand, giving and receiving a hug, or gathering together in support were not possible. Dr. Watson importantly notes that our presence (human-to-human) need not take place in the same space and time and can, through cyberspace, often lead to “intense personal intimacy with strangers and friends alike” (Watson, 2005, p. 201).

Likewise, Rogers explicates the concept of pandimensionality, a non-linear and non-local process that allows for distance healing to create new energy patterns (Butcher, 2021). The need for caring as well as learning was considerable and was provided virtually by faculty both synchronously and asynchronously. Faculty held virtual listening sessions and were intentional in authentic presence to simply hear students. Synchronous courses opened with an emphasis on making time to listen and support the expression of both positive and negative feelings. Recorded lectures were developed with the concepts of authentic presence in mind. In similar ways, faculty and staff took care of each other virtually.

Watson (2002) asserts that one of nursing’s shared tasks is “finding meaning in our own life and health-illness concerns, as we reawaken to our profound compassionate, caring and healing service in the world” (p. 3). Organized volunteer work in COVID-19 testing clinics offered students opportunities to awaken to compassionate, caring, and healing service. Many faculty volunteered with students to be authentically present while providing COVID-19 testing. Ultimately, and certainly in a much more joyous setting, nursing faculty and students enthusiastically volunteered in large numbers to administer vaccines, first for the most vulnerable and then for all.

Purpose, Resolve, and Harmony

As we reflect back on the 2020 academic year, faculty were adapting to the “new normal” of the pandemic: students were allowed on campus only for simulation and laboratory activities; in addition, they were required to complete careful screening for potential illness, wear PPE, practice social distancing, and quarantine as necessary. Additionally, in late September 2020, the Department of Nursing completed a continuing accreditation review conducted virtually by the ACEN for the eight programs of study offered in our baccalaureate, master’s, and clinical doctorate degree programs. Preparing for a virtual accreditation visit during a pandemic is another exemplar of helicy.

At the time this article was written, 66.4% of the population ages 12 and older in Minnesota had had at least one COVID-19 vaccine (MN COVID-19 Response, 2021). The trial in Minneapolis for the murder of George Floyd concluded, and for the most part the outcome equaled justice. In Fall 2021, the university will welcome all employees and students back to campus, and COVID-19 vaccination is mandatory.

New energy patterns will evolve as we begin this academic year. Nursing faculty will return with a stronger commitment to social justice and a deeper understanding of the social determinants of health. Instances of “caring moments” will likely increase. Following our accreditation experience, the Accreditation Readiness Committee was created to continuously shepherd existing and new processes and procedures needed to maintain the integrity and quality of our nursing programs.

Helicy is ever-present. To live in the heart of helicy, nursing faculty must always engage compassionately and knowingly in the unfolding patterns of unpredictability to cultivate purpose, forge resolve, and recover harmony (Butcher, 2002).

Written by Vicki L. Ericson, DNP, ANP, FNP, Associate Professor at St. Catherine University

Correspondence regarding this article should be addressed to Vicki Ericson, 110 Whitby Hall, St. Catherine University, 2004 Randolph Avenue, St. Paul, MN 55105. Email: [email protected]


Butcher, H. K. (2002). Living in the heart of helicy: An inquiry into the meaning of compassion and unpredictability within Rogers’ nursing science. Vision10(1), 6–22.

Butcher, H. K. (2021). Martha E. Rogers’ nursing science: The science of unitary human beings 2.0.

Minnesota COVID-19 Response. (2021, July 26). Vaccine data.

The Guardian. (2021, April 7). Lost on the frontline.

Watson, J. (2002, January–March) Nursing: Seeking its source and survival. ICUs and Nursing Web Journal.

Watson, J. (2005). Caring science as sacred science. F. A. Davis.