Students Gain Insights During Nebraska Medicine Biocontainment Unit Tour

Gaining as much knowledge about different health care fields and units before graduation can help students determine which area is right for them. To gain insight into one specific area, Clarkson College students had the opportunity to tour the Nebraska Medicine Biocontainment Unit (NBU) on Nov. 20.

Nursing, Radiography and Community Health students saw firsthand how the unit operates and spoke with individuals involved with patient care and communication efforts for NBU. “I always look for real-life opportunities to use as case studies to allow students to experience a concept in a hands-on type of environment,” said Clarkson College General Education Instructor Rachel Pfeifer. “My Patient Engagement, Medicine and Mass Media course deals in part with global health crises and how health care institutions can effectively communicate with patients and the public. It occurred to me that we have a perfect example of this in the biocontainment unit, and it’s right across the street.”

Pfeifer worked with Executive Director of Emergency Preparedness and Infection Prevention Shelly Schwedhelm, MSN, RN, NEA-BC who led the tour and discussed the history of the unit with students. Officially opened in 2005, the NBU gained national attention in 2014 when it was activated to treat patients with Ebola who had been evacuated from Africa. It was one of only three units in the United States chosen by the U.S. State Department to care for American citizens affected by the disease.

Being immersed in the space where practitioners treated patients offered students a unique opportunity. “One student reflected that being in the rooms where patients fought for their lives and meeting people who risked their lives to save them was a completely different experience than hearing about the events on the news,” said Pfeifer.

Along with Ebola, NBU is set up to handle cases of highly contagious and deadly infectious conditions including severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), smallpox, plague and other viral hemorrhagic fevers. The 10-bed unit is one of the largest in the nation, and its team members frequently help train hospitals in the U.S. and abroad in preparing for patients with viral diseases. 

Students were especially interested to learn from Schwedhelm how medical practitioners can become NBU team members. The staff includes physicians, registered nurses, respiratory therapists and patient care technicians, most of whom work full-time in other areas of Nebraska Medicine. Students learned that individuals may apply to join the NBU team outside of their regular units and remain on-call to report for duty when the NBU is activated. The staff receives specialized training and participates in drills throughout the year to help them prepare for activation.

The tour also included an explanation of the various NBU functions and capabilities that ensure staff and employees stay safe when the unit is activated. A High-Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filtration system, dual autoclaves to decontaminate materials, telehealth communication systems and patient transport isolation unit allows Nebraska Medicine to maximize the safety of staff and the community.

Following the tour, Nebraska Medicine Senior Media Relations Coordinator Taylor Wilson and Director of Communications Paul Baltes spoke to students and faculty about risk communications and their role during the 2014 activation of the unit. They offered insights into the institution’s approach to internal and external communications during the treatment of patients. Wilson and Baltes explained their goals in providing transparent information to both employees and the public to ensure that people felt confident in the organization’s abilities to treat patients.

Both the tour and communications presentation would not have been possible without help from the Nebraska Medicine staff. “Shelly, Paul and Taylor were amazing to work with,” said Pfeifer. “They took hours out of their busy day to open their doors and educate our students, which speaks to their dedication to what they do.”