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Two very special guests dropped into our Nursing skills lab this week. The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge spoke to nursing students from Ulster University via video call to hear more about their experiences of studying during the pandemic, and of undertaking placements on the frontline of the COVID-19 response in Northern Ireland.

The Duchess of Cambridge praised the group of student nurses soon to join the profession telling them:

"Nursing is one of the most trusted professions in the country, so you couldn’t have chosen a better career choice and it’s needed now more than ever."

"You’ve got almost three generations now – those coming back from retirement but also you guys doing your training who are stepping up – it shows real commitment and real teamwork, and it should really be celebrated, so really well done."

On the surprise video call on Tuesday afternoon, their Royal Highnesses firstly spoke to Abigail McGarvey, a first-year Adult Nursing student, about a video diary she created to demonstrate a typical shift during her first placement as a student nurse. Abigail told The Duke and Duchess about some of the challenges she had faced, including the emotional impact of patients being unable to receive visits from their families. She also spoke about her experience of starting university during a pandemic, and the impact that COVID-19 has had on her ability to socialise and learn with fellow students in person due to lockdown restrictions and a subsequent increase in online learning.

William asked if training in a pandemic had changed her thoughts on becoming a nurse, and Abigail replied:

“It has really confirmed that this is what I want to do for the rest of my life – this is the job I was meant to do.”

She added the pandemic meant families were not able to visit and support their loved ones so “you have to give them so much more”.

Abigail, whose grandmother, mother and sister are all nurses, said:

“My first day on the wards I showed up and within a few hours there was a massive cardiac arrest. And seeing everything just go up in the air, and how the team comes together, and how everyone is really working to look after these patients – it really just solidified that this is exactly what I want to do.”

Their Royal Highnesses then joined a video call with a group of second and third year students and their lecturers, taking part in practical clinical sessions at the University’s Magee Campus. Both cohorts undertook placements during the first wave of the pandemic, with many opting to extend their placements in order to continue to support the frontline workforce. During the call, the students discussed  their appreciation for the invaluable experiences they have gained  working on the frontline, and the support they received from the university during this challenging period.

William told the trainees:

“It’s very difficult for you guys to go straight into a pandemic I would imagine, that’s really baptism by fire as they say, isn’t it?”

Lisa Semerdzhieva, a Year 3 nursing student, replied:

“Yes, right, although it was frightening at the start, you know, you really want to go out more. Now you can’t wait to get back out and practise, to feel like you’re helping, you know, because that’s what we were born to do really.”

Ranked in the top 50 nursing schools in the world, Ulster University’s School of Nursing is one of the largest programmes at Ulster University, with approximately 1600 students registered in the School. At the start of the pandemic in March 2020, students were asked to join the front line. Student placements were adapted to meet the needs and demands of the health service, with the majority of students being placed in COVID-19 areas in both hospital and community settings.

We are so proud of our student nurses and their dedication and commitment to patient care during the pandemic – well done to all involved.