Networks of Support: Pen-pal friendship becomes encounter at hospital for nursing student

Cassandra Campbell headshot
Nursing senior Cassandra Campbell participated in a pen-pal exchange with an older man who lives in an assisted living center. The campaign was an outreach from the university's Networks of Support, focused on assisting residents during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Image credit - courtesy photo

A pen-pal friendship became an in-person chance encounter at a hospital when an older man sick with COVID-19 symptoms was greeted by the nursing student with whom he corresponded.

Cassandra Campbell was one of 90 Kirkhof College of Nursing students who participated in a pen-pal campaign by writing or calling senior citizens who live in area assisted living centers. The idea for the campaign came from a subgroup, Companion Support and Check-In, of the university's Networks of Support.

Campbell, a senior, said she wanted to write to a pen pal because she understood how lonely it must be for assisted living residents, particularly when family and other visitors were limited or banned. Campbell and her pen pal had exchanged one letter, in which he described being isolated in his room, before their encounter at an area hospital.

"When I was working that day, I realized my pen-pal's name was on my assignment list, and I thought, 'It cannot be him,'" Campbell said. At the time, she was working on the hospital's COVID-19 floor as a resource nursing technician.

It had been a week since their letter exchange. Campbell went to his room to record vital signs and deliver a food tray. "I walked in and greeted this patient. I remember his smile to me. I knew deep down that he realized I was his pen pal when I wrote my name on his white board," she said.

headshot of Sydnee Reid and quote about participating in the program: I wanted to participate in this program because I really enjoyed the experience I had during my nursing home clinical rotation and I know during these uncertain times, older people especially feel isolated and alone.
Senior Sydnee Reid enjoyed writing to her pen pal.
Image credit - courtesy photo

Rebecca Davis, associate dean of KCON research and scholarship, is co-chair of the Companion Support and Check-In subgroup with Ricardo Benavidez, from the Office of the President. Davis said the pen-pal campaign served as a good opportunity for students to "connect with and learn about older adults who may have been through pandemics before."

Davis took the idea to four of the assisted living centers in West Michigan where she conducts wayfinding research funded by the National Institutes on Aging. Then she and Benavidez led a volunteer initiative connecting nursing and pre-nursing students with older adults living in residential communities.

She said they were thrilled to participate because of the social aspect it would bring to residents. KCON, with support from the Provost's Office, provided students with stationery and stamps, several guidelines and conversation suggestions; and Carol Rausch, KCON administrative assistant, connected students with residents.

Students who participated in the project responded to a survey and reported they found the project enjoyable. Several students mentioned it helped improve their communication skills and provided an opportunity to brighten someone's day.

headshot and quote from Caroline Hardies: My person and I would talk about our daily activities, our new favorite books, and the small victories found in each day like getting to go for a walk! Being apart of the pen pal/phone program has allowed me to work on my conversation skills, build a virtual relationship with my person, and bring joy to my person during this time of uncertainty.
Caroline Hardies kept up a phone exchange with a senior citizen who lives in an area assisted living center.
Image credit - courtesy photo

Campbell learned her pen pal was released from the hospital and has returned to his home. "After the day I saw him in the hospital, I wrote to him and said it was a pleasure to take care of him even though I wished he would not have experienced this terrible virus," she said.

Her pen pal experience brought the pandemic full circle, Campbell said.

"People close to us will catch the virus and I never thought that I’d be on the frontline at 21 years old. This experience was my driving force to continue working during this difficult time," she said. "The shifts started getting harder and more exhausting, but I kept telling myself that I was doing it for people like my pen pal."

In late March, President Philomena V. Mantella asked the Grand Valley community to harness its collective talents and volunteer to assist during the COVID-19 pandemic. Learn more about the Networks of Support online.


Sign up and receive the latest Grand Valley headlines delivered to your email inbox each morning.