A much-valued partnership that brings nurses from Camp Lejeune to train at Novant Health New Hanover Regional Medical Center is back after a two-year hiatus caused by the pandemic. The goal: to prepare the nurses for nearly anything they might encounter once deployed, even if they are dropped into a war zone.

“They may see a patient fresh from the operating room who’s had cardiac bypass surgery or a trauma patient who’s had surgery to correct bleeding in their abdomen,” said Christy Spivey, senior director of nursing, Coastal region emergency services. “They treat patients with head injuries, bleeds inside their brain, patients with chronic conditions that worsen. There are a multitude of things they’re exposed to.”

And they need to be ready. Deployed nurses may have to treat blast injuries, burns, gunshot wounds, head injuries. They need to know how to manage a patient who's on a ventilator for an extended time.

This nurse training partnership, which started in 2019, was paused during COVID. New Hanover Regional Medical Center, in Wilmington, recently resumed hosting ICU nurses from Naval Medical Center Camp Lejeune (NMCCL), about 35 miles away. The Lejeune trainees – all licensed nurses – work with an assigned nurse mentor (known as a preceptor) who’s often a retired or active member of the military. The training runs for 15 weeks.

Thus far, 11 military nurses have completed the training. “Our goal is to always keep at least one military nurse in the pipeline,” said Lt. Sivchhun Hun, NMCCL ICU clinical nurse specialist.

Nurses preparing for deployment need experience in a level II trauma center, Spivey said.

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Trauma centers are reviewed and verified by the American College of Surgeons on a five-point scale, with level I being the highest level of acute care. New Hanover is a level II trauma center with aspirations of becoming level I in the next several years. Camp Lejeune’s trauma center is level III.

The varying levels measure things like number of patients admitted, surgeons’ knowledge of trauma care, availability of back-up trauma surgeons, hours of operation, severity of injuries treated and other factors. Providers in level I and II trauma centers treat everything from gunshot wounds to shark bites.

It’s invaluable experience for the nurses preparing to deploy to hot spots across the globe. In addition to hands-on training, NMCCL nurses attend clinical classes that cover topics such as stroke, neurological care, trauma, cardiac care, resuscitation and transport.

“This collaboration allows our military nurses to train and maintain their clinical skills and knowledge in a high-paced environment with critically ill patients,” said Cmdr. Sachiko Ikari, NMCCL clinical nurse specialist in Camp Lejeune’s medical center ICU. “It allows our nurses to see a variety of patients that range in acuity to help prepare nurses for the diverse deployment environments they are assigned to.”

It’s not just the level of trauma that Lejeune nurses get to see at New Hanover that helps prepare them; it’s also the equipment they use. “Our ICU nurses can train with critically ill patients who require specialized medical equipment that help maintain their hemodynamic (blood flow) stability,” said Hun.

The NMCCL nurses train in the medical ICU, the surgical and trauma ICU and the cardiac and cardiovascular surgery ICU. Typically, they work in three-week rotations with no more than one nurse in a particular unit at one time.

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“They get hands-on experience working with equipment, monitoring the patient, monitoring the outcomes of interventions and they learn to change the care plan based on their assessment of that patient in real time,” Spivey said. “Training here also gives them experience collaborating with civilian health care providers, which could be the case once they’re deployed.”

NMCCL nurses clearly benefit from the program. But New Hanover benefits, too. “We appreciate hosting our military,” Spivey said. “That’s an honor. We also get to learn from their experiences and see things through their eyes and through the unique experiences they bring. Plus, they’re able to provide patient care.”

The trainees aren’t paid by Novant Health. “No pay or other monetary benefits … is allowed under the Joint Ethics regulation,” said Riley Eversull, Naval Medical Center Camp Lejeune public affairs officer. “But the knowledge and skills they gain benefit nursing teams greatly. Being able to partner with … Novant Health for the purpose of furthering nursing capabilities benefits multiple communities throughout the region.”

This is the second partnership between Lejeune and New Hanover. The two organizations also work together on disaster preparedness – which is critical given their location at the hurricane-prone coast.

And each new partnership strengthens the collaboration. “When we're able to operate on a daily basis on programs like this, it not only elevates the standard of care in our region, it improves communication,” Eversull said. “So, if there’s a disaster or some other need, we can pick up the phone and call our partners. And we value that collaboration … because it's a two-way street. In the end, it benefits our patients and our community.”