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Dozens of Old Dominion University nursing students at the Virginia Beach campus showed up in shifts on Friday for something a bit different than their typical clinical work: planting trees. 

The environmental focus is part of their curriculum this year, said Janice Hawkins, a nursing clinical associate professor. ODU’s fall semester is themed around sustainability.

When the school built the Virginia Beach Higher Education Center a couple decades ago, it cleared all the existing trees.

ODU recently received a $20,000 grant from the Virginia Department of Forestry to reforest the site. The state grant program aims to increase the long-term tree canopy.

The goal in Virginia Beach is to reduce and treat stormwater runoff at the location by restoring trees, which helps blunt the increasing effects of sea level rise. 

For Hawkins, though, the project represents more.

It’s part of an effort by her department to combat health care’s outsized impact on the environment.

“One of our initial tenets is do no harm,” she said. “But yet we’re doing some harm.”

The health care industry is responsible for an estimated 10% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, according to a 2016 study by the Public Library of Science.

That includes washing almost 10 billion pounds of linen and contributing five million tons of waste each year.

The ODU School of Nursing signed onto a national climate challenge that encourages programs to include the topic in some of their coursework.

Hawkins also co-wrote an article detailing ways that hospitals can reduce their carbon footprint that ran this year in the Nurse Leader journal.

The methods include eliminating single-use plastics from hospital cafeterias, using anesthetic gasses that cause fewer emissions, dimming lights when possible and updating HVAC systems to be more efficient.

Some Virginia hospitals have already started rethinking policies of washing sheets daily unless they’re soiled, Hawkins said.

“We’re washing clean linens,” she said. “We have a lot of waste, some of it legitimate but some of it because” of how it’s always been done.

Hawkins said the new longleaf pine, bald cypress and black gum trees at the Virginia Beach center will be good for the environment and healthier for humans, too. 

“It goes both ways. Nurses are concerned about how the environment impacts health,” she said. 

“But then we’re also concerned about how does the hospital industry itself impact the environment.”