The Home We Love So Well: Stories from Home Series
Hawks on the Frontlines, Part III: Hawks in the ER
When your head and your heart align, there’s a bond that creates a point of clarity—and solidifies into determination. So it was for each of the three Hawks in this story, who have found their call to nursing through work in hospital emergency rooms. Each of these Hawks serves in the front of the COVID-19 frontlines.
“My experience with COVID patients in the ER has been interesting to say the least,” says Sydney Robbins ’16, an ER nurse at Tallahassee Memorial Healthcare Northeast Emergency Center in Florida. “I’ve had young and old, healthy, unhealthy. This can affect anyone.”
Deon Maxwell ’19 is an emergency room technician at Russell Medical Center in Alexander City, Alabama. He checks in the patients and swabs them for flu, strep, and coronavirus according to their symptoms. He has held the job for two months, and estimates he’s worked with about 80 COVID-19 patients in that short time. “I think the worst part is seeing the families of people who are about to pass away and [having] to tell them they can’t see their loved ones because no one is allowed in the hospital,” says Deon. “A person went from walking to deceased in eight hours from the virus. Most of these people are older but the virus can quickly negatively affect breathing and lead to worse.”
Cade Conville ’17, an emergency care technician, has responsibilities that are a hybrid of phlebotomy, patient care, and emergency treatment support at the University of Alabama-Birmingham Emergency Department. Before assuming his current role, he worked as a Certified Nursing Assistant, scrub technician, and patient care technician in the same department. Cade says, “My role covers support to nurses, doctors, paramedics, and others. I draw blood work, perform EKGs, run multiple tests, screen patients, document patient information, and help perform life-saving procedures and treatments.” Respiratory cases that are suspected to be COVID-19-related are quickly moved out of the care of the emergency room and into a special unit, once stabilized. As of last weekend, the hospital had seen about 800 COVID-19 patients, by Cade’s estimate.
At Huntingdon, Sydney was a cell biology major and was involved in myriad student organizations and leadership roles, including service as a Huntingdon Ambassador and as part of the women’s golf team. Her love for people, especially children, led her to nursing school after graduating. “I didn’t mean to choose emergency medicine, to be honest,” she says. “I always thought I wanted to do pediatrics. I was randomly placed in my ER for my internship as a [nursing] student at Florida State University and fell in love with the fast pace and people I work with. It is a great place to learn and it’s always interesting!” She completed her BSN through the FSU accelerated nursing program in 2017.
Cade knew as a Huntingdon student he wanted to pursue a career in medicine. A cell biology major and baseball player, he served as a hospital volunteer and shadowed physicians during high school and college. His passions were sparked by growing up with parents who were also completely committed to their careers: his mom is a trauma nurse and his dad is Huntingdon head baseball coach D.J. Conville ’98.
Soon, Cade will begin the Accelerated Master’s in Nursing Program (AMNP) at UAB. “I came on at UAB after I decided to go to graduate school here and realized I really could not afford it without massive loans. I had to do some networking but eventually met the head of our Emergency Department. He allowed me to shadow and I soon put in my resume. I was offered the job a month later and here I am now. The reason I wanted to be here is because there is a program for full-time employees to continue their education for free. I hope anyone who wants to work in the medical field but feels they cannot afford it [can consider this program]—it is a wonderful opportunity.”
Deon, an exercise science major and wrestler at Huntingdon, has been working as a fitness instructor in the cardiac rehabilitation gym at the hospital for the past year. “Our gym at the hospital was shut down [because of COVID-19] so I was offered a position as a tech in the ER until everything was open again,” he says. “Working here has shown me what I really want to do. I enjoy coming to work every day and helping people. It doesn’t even feel like work and the day goes by quickly.” Deon intends for his next step to be nursing school.
Personal protective equipment is rationed, in some cases, at these three hospitals, but is not in as dire supply as reported in large cities. Sydney has to wear her surgical masks for three full shifts before discarding. Though Cade’s hospital has had PPE shortages, he says they expect greater problems in the near future. All three alumni say that COVID patient numbers are expected to spike as shelter-in-place rules are relaxed, which could result in equipment and bed scarcity.
“The forecast is that once the shelter-in-place orders are lifted the number of COVID-positive patients will increase, possibly at an initially high rate,” says Cade. “The fact of the matter is this virus is very new and very contagious. The only way to combat it at this moment is lessening contact and [using] what medicinal treatments we currently have.”
“We are blessed to have a great community where a lot [of PPE supplies] are donated,” says Deon. “But we’ve had three nurses that I know of who have tested positive for COVID. Two of them have returned to work.”
None of Sydney’s co-workers has tested positive for COVID-19. She participated in a study testing 100 employees hospital-wide for antibodies to the disease, but every result was negative.
Sydney’s position puts her in close contact with patients for longer periods of time than technicians experience, so she is better able to get to know the patients with whom she’s working. “One of my most memorable COVID patients came in last week: middle-aged man, no history besides being a smoker. He was so short of breath he felt as if he couldn’t breathe. His oxygen was 78% on arrival to the room, and only improved to about 85% maxed out on the supplemental oxygen I had available at the time. He was panicking, his heart rate and blood pressure spiked. An hour later he was finally placed on a BiPAP [Bilevel Positive Airway Pressure] machine breathing a little better at about 90%. For a healthy person we expect their oxygen to be over 92-94%. It’s crazy how long two hours can feel relying on someone to bring you the supplies you need (the rooms are basically empty) when you’re now considered ‘dirty’ and cannot leave the room to get things yourself.” Fortunately, after five days in ICU, Sydney’s patient survived.
Many hospitals are reporting decreases in patient numbers because of the cancellation of elective procedures and the reluctance of patients who are seriously ill to visit emergency rooms while the pandemic is raging. Consequently, hospital revenues are taking a hit, and so are nurses’ hours. Sydney was working extra hours at the beginning of the pandemic, but the crisis has caused drastic reductions in hospital revenue, and her hours have been cut in half. Meanwhile, COVID patients have increased, due in part to better test availability and a free walk-up testing site at the facility.
Still, there’s no job any of these three alumni would rather do right now.
“As far as nursing goes, the pandemic really hasn’t changed my perspective of bedside nursing,” says Sydney. “It’s still just a patient that needs your help. Having to wear full PPE (shoe covers, gown, N95, hair net, face shield, double gloves) is definitely different, but I’m thankful we still have the resources to stay as safe as possible.”
“During a time where so many negative things are going on, it is a good feeling to help others and make their day a little better than it was before they came in,” says Deon.
“This position has made me realize how badly I want to go further in this field,” says Cade. “I see people in their worst moments every single day and all I ever want to do is help them. My end goal is hospital management but along the way I want to help as many people as I can and make those horrible moments maybe just a little bit better.”
Frontline stories will be continued as part of this series. If you have a frontline story, please contact Su Ofe at email@example.com.
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