Nursing students help keep THON dancers in top shape

For close to 10 years, Penn State student nurses have been a fixture at THON, wearing their signature purple-and-green T-shirts and administering medication to help keep the dancers in top shape. Credit: Penn State College of Nursing / Penn StateCreative Commons

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Every February, hundreds of Penn State students take to the floor of the Bryce Jordan Center for 46 hours of dancing and raising money for a great cause — supporting those affected by pediatric cancer.

But the health of the dancers at THON is important too. Many of them are managing chronic medical conditions that require regular medication. And it can be tough to keep track of when you need to take your next dose when you’re trying just to stay on your feet.

That’s where Penn State’s College of Nursing comes in. Under the supervision of nursing faculty, students enrolled in NURS 306 (Nursing Care of Children and Adolescents) administer medications for the dancers as part of their required clinical hours.

“The students run the medication station and use the Jordan Center’s message board to alert students when they are due for a medication dose,” said instructor Cindy Sullivan, who teaches the NURS 306 course. “That way, the dancers can focus on the reason they are there — to support the kids and have fun.”

Like most tasks associated with THON, managing the logistics of medication administration is a yearlong process. A team of 10 students — nine seniors and a junior — volunteers to organize and oversee the effort, working with the Dancer Relations committee throughout the year to plan and prepare.

“We chose Marissa McEwen to represent the junior class so that she can be a part of making things run smoothly again next year,” said Sullivan. “Everyone on the team has worked so hard and spent a large part of their time to make sure the dancers get their medications safely.”

A week before THON, the student nurses collect the dancers’ medications and necessary medical information and organize it according to each dancer’s number. They sort and label the medications, then package them to be delivered to the Jordan Center, where the medication station is set up just outside the main dance floor area.

Members of the medication team schedule the four-hour shifts for each of the junior clinical students, who dispense both prescription and over-the-counter medications. Faculty members volunteer their time to oversee the students who administer the meds, and a senior is present to make sure everything runs smoothly.

“This is a special opportunity for nursing students,” said Mary Anne Ventura, an instructor in nursing who, along with Sullivan, heads the medication administration committee. “In addition to providing a needed service for THON, we are giving students a chance to exercise their clinical judgment and gain real experience in the field.”

Kevin Cacela, a senior nursing student from Old Bridge, New Jersey, is serving as software liaison for the 2016 THON medication team. (Each of the 10 team members is assigned a specific role.) He echoed Ventura’s sentiment that participating was a unique way to get valuable experience while being a part of an important Penn State tradition.

“I wanted to take part in the inner workings of what makes THON so successful,” Cacela said. “During my pediatrics rotation (at Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center), I got to spend time actually caring for Four Diamonds children and saw a perspective of THON that most students don’t get to see.

“Seeing those children in their hospital beds filled me with hope, rather than sorrow. Though they were sick, none of them were sad. It reminded me of why I chose this career path.”

Keeping that hope alive is an important reason for getting involved with THON, as Cacela noted.

“Since I am no longer providing direct care to the kids, I wanted to take an indirect role by joining the med team,” he said. “That way, I can take advantage of my nursing education and make a difference at the same time.”

Kelsey Robinson, a senior from San Diego, California, noticed the medication station when she served on the Dancer Relations committee her sophomore year. When she heard the college needed students to serve on the medication team for this year, she signed up.

“I didn’t hesitate to take the opportunity to be involved with THON and work with the kids while continuing my nursing education,” said Robinson, one of three team leaders. “I’ve really enjoyed the past two semesters working with THON, as well as with the nursing faculty and my fellow students.

“Administering medication is a huge part of patient safety, and it’s important for students to learn this responsibility early on,” she continued. “We need to understand not only how to deliver medications, but when and why they are needed.”

Cacela and Robinson agreed that ensuring the dancers’ safety is key.

“The medication administration team has allowed me to combine two of my greatest passions: THON and nursing,” Robinson said.

Last Updated February 11, 2016