From the Front Lines: Two Alumni Talk Nursing During COVID-19

We interviewed Jason M. Kennedy BSN, RN, (above left) who is the emergency department nurse manager for CHI St. Vincent Infirmary in Little Rock, and Amanda (Mandy) Terry (above right, photographed with Mandy Smith), who is a registered nurse at CHI St Vincent. Kennedy is a 2008 graduate of ATU’s nursing program. Terry graduated from ATU with a bachelor’s degree in public relations in 2010 and graduated from UALR with a bachelor’s degree in nursing in 2016. During the COVID-19 Pandemic, she worked as a travel RN in New York City.

What’s been your journey to the position you’re in now? How long have you been working in healthcare?

Kennedy: I worked for 11 years on an ambulance with Pope County EMS until I hurt my back. My heart is in emergency medicine, so I wanted to stay in healthcare but to be in more of a protected environment so I went back to Arkansas Tech University to get my BSN in Nursing. I graduated in 2008 and have been working in the hospital setting since then.

Terry: I have been a nurse for 3 1/2 years. I originally started out on a cardiac floor and then moved to the emergency department.

What/who inspired you to enter the healthcare profession initially?

Kennedy: I would have to say that Leonard Krout inspired me to get into healthcare. He was the county coroner and the shift supervisor at PCEMS. He also taught Sunday school at my church. He had a large part in my upbringing.

Terry: I’ve always respected the nursing field and wanted to be a nurse but I was actually afraid of needles and avoided it my first time in college. So it wasn’t until my grandma passed from a heart attack, that I reassessed everything. Unfortunately, it was the lack of nursing care that she experienced in the hospital that made me want to become a nurse and make a difference. I wanted to make sure that no patient/family would ever go through what my grandma and family went through.

Describe how your shifts have altered as this pandemic gained traction and what a typical day is like for you now.

Kennedy: Since the pandemic, all of the focus in healthcare has transitioned to the threat of COVID-19. We now have to pay attention to this hidden virus that initially nobody knew very much about. As nurses, we are used to being able to look at signs and symptoms of a patient and pick up on clues to determine what is going on and it be relatively safe for them and ourselves. But it definitely raises the stakes when we are told that people could present with no symptoms at all and be contagious.

A typical day for me consists of assessing the current state of my emergency department to make sure my staff have the necessary PPE, going to morning huddles to assess the state of the hospital and the supply of PPE, watching the Governors COVID-19 update to track stats and going to the afternoon COVID-19 meeting at CHI St. Vincent’s so that I can update my Charge Nurses on anything new they need to know. Details of how we have to operationalize things to ensure everyone is safe change on a daily basis and sometimes more often than that. So we have had to learn to be very flexible.

Terry: When the COVID-19 pandemic first hit, my hospital (CHI St Vincent) was packed. There wasn’t a method set in place to screen these patients. So we were scrambling with trying to care for the possible COVID patients and also keep our other patients in the ER safe. We have three pods in my ER, each contains 8 rooms. We turned our third pod into the COVID area. Anyone with a fever, shortness of breath or cough would come back to this area. At first, we were slammed: we would get back to back ambulances with COVID-like symptoms, patients coming to the waiting room with a cough and fever who all wanted to be tested. It was very stressful and overwhelming. This was about the beginning of March to around spring break.

However, about early April everything slowed down. We saw half the number of ER patients that we would normally see. I believe it was because everyone was afraid to come to the hospital in fear of contracting the virus. Due to the lack of patients, the hospital had to low census us, and I would get sent home early or asked to come in late. I worked the mid-shift which is 11 a.m.-11 p.m. I would usually get sent home around 6 or 7 p.m., which would cause me to use my PTO to cover my hours lost.  A typical day for me would be waking up at 8 a.m., leaving for work by 9 a.m., driving to Little Rock from Russellville [and] getting to work at 10:15-10:30 a.m.

Usually, as a mid-shifter, we help other nurses or open up an additional area in the ER to help with the influx of patients coming in. However, the majority of my shifts lately were slow. I would get to work and there would be about 1-4 patients in our ER, and that would usually leave me with nothing to do. Now, my shifts look a bit different! I am on the night shift in the ER at Jacobi Medical Center, in the Bronx, NY. I wake up at 4 p.m., get ready and then head down to the hotel lobby around 5:45 and wait to get on a chartered bus that will take me from my hotel in Times Square to the Bronx. From there, I’ll get my assignment, which varies day-to-day. Most days I’m in the ER, and some [days] I have to go to other units in need. Once I report [for work], it is non-stop running around taking care of patients, all [of whom] are confirmed COVID-positive. The hospital I’m in now supplies us with one mask and gown for the entire shift. We are to wear it the entire time.  A lot of us have skin breakdown behind our ears and on the bridge of our noses. Our shifts are over about 7:30 a.m., and we get back on the bus to the hotel and then do it all over.

Amongst the chaos, what’s been a silver lining that you’ve found? What’s been one of the lowest points so far?

Kennedy: The silver lining is that we get to be a part of something big. We have an opportunity to make a difference in something that is far reaching. There has never been an occurrence that has impacted the world as we know it like this. This is our “for such a time as this” moment. It was what we were created for. What’s been one of the lowest points so far? The lowest point has been the constant uncertainty. How long will this last? Will things ever get back to normal? Will I get it? Will I give it to my family? I haven’t hugged my mother in over a month. That hurts. There is a lot of stress involved in this.

Terry: I decided to come to New York City to work as a travel RN after watching the news and seeing the need. I was extremely nervous at first but a coworker and I decided that we were needed more in New York than at my current job (due to getting sent home early and low patient census). I would say a silver lining is seeing how brave and strong the medical field is. When we got here, we came with about 400 nurses from all over the US, and we are all like a big family. And just to see how grateful the entire city is that we are here makes it all worth it.

How are you retaining your emotional and mental resilience right now? Any particular methods you’d like to share?

Kennedy: I have to be able to unplug, which is difficult when the stakes are so high and you are responsible for things when so much is changing. But I know that I must rest. I must take my mind off of things. So I have been going fishing a lot so I can have an activity outside of work but be away from people. And when I’m at home, I’m spending time with my family, even if I’m having to do it at a distance.

Terry: I knew [going] to New York would be mentally and emotionally exhausting. Once I had my first shift I almost broke down. The hospital I work at (Jacobi, in the Bronx) is city-owned and ran. And it is essentially a broken system. Everything I knew about how an ER should run, does not apply here. Again, mentally I wasn’t sure that I would be able to last 3 weeks. I decided to keep a journal to decompress after each shift. It helps to write down my experience and get it off my mind. I’ve also taken it one day at a time. I am working 21 days straight, so thinking about it one day at a time helps. I also make time to FaceTime my fiancé and family, which helps as well.

What, if any, are some myths you’d like to clear up for the public about this crisis?

Kennedy: I think the biggest misunderstanding is that if we just socially distance and shut down for a while, this will all go away. COVID-19 is real. It’s here. And there is a high likelihood we will get it just like people get the flu. The point of the social distancing is to allow the healthcare system to keep up with the demands as people are infected. It’s to keep us from becoming overwhelmed in terms of supplies and resources so that we can help people and to buy time for scientists to come up with a vaccine. Also, we cannot emphasize enough the importance of washing your hands. It’s the number one way you can protect yourself. I think that is getting overlooked a lot.

Terry: This virus presents differently in each patient. No case is the same. But it is real, and it’s slowing down, but we still need to be cautious before we jump right back into how life was before all of this. So in general just be safe, wash your hands!

How do you think this could change the future (methodologies and/or attractiveness for job seekers) of the healthcare field? 

Kennedy: I believe it will be great for the healthcare field. This is our opportunity. We are the essentials. There are people that choose to run toward the disaster. It’s not for everybody. But it’s for me. And it’s for those I work with. I think people want to be a part of something bigger than themselves. And this field gives them that something.

Terry: I can only speculate, but I feel like this pandemic will forever change the healthcare system. I think it’s going to take us a while to get back to how we were—if that’s even possible. This pandemic showed us all the flaws in our system as well, so I think in the future we will hopefully be better prepared to handle the next big thing. I’m not sure if people will be excited or afraid to join the healthcare field. One thing for sure is that there is and always will be a big demand.

-For the Tech Action, Fall 2020