The term novel is based on the Latin novellus, meaning new, young and fresh.
Many aspects of the new decade can be described as just that—shocking celebrity deaths, a tumultuous election season, natural disasters, climate change and social unrest: all under the umbrella of a looming pandemic.
When COVID-19 initially spread through Connecticut in early 2020, Southern Connecticut State University nursing and health-care students were ready to serve, making personal sacrifices to fight on the front lines of the pandemic, all while fighting a then unknown virus.
Pilarose Bailon, Alycia Calabrese, Aschlyn Dawson, Josh Estores and Izabella Roque are five of many Southern nursing students who decided to care for some of Connecticut’s thousands of patients stricken with COVID-19, knowing the risks to their own health.
These students, in particular, were quickly educated and informed about the current state of health care in the United States, and the important role they could play during the pandemic.
“Before I started the job, I didn’t know how serious it was,” says Calabrese, a patient care associate at Yale New Haven Hospital. “People don’t know how hectic it is, how we have to take five to 10 minutes to get into a patient’s room, the emotional aspect of it. People don’t see that.”
For Estores, a nurse technician at Yale’s Saint Raphael Campus in New Haven, the first patient he cared for was diagnosed with COVID-19 in the intensive care unit. At a time when there were PPE shortages, he had to store his used masks and face shields in brown paper bags for future use.
“It was difficult to care for patients because protocol was always changing,” says Estores. “We weren’t sure if what we were doing was the best and most effective, in caring for ourselves while caring for our patients.”
Then juniors, these students were in the midst of their clinicals when the COVID-19 outbreak was declared a global pandemic by the World Health Organization on March 11, 2020.
“We heard about it in other countries, and I felt everyone was so sheltered about [COVID-19],” says Dawson, a nurse technician at The Hospital of Central Connecticut in New Britain. “Diseases don’t follow borders, so we should have been more prepared.”
At the same time, the physical campuses of local colleges and universities closed indefinitely, shifting to virtual and online platforms for the remainder of the spring semester. The shift in learning affected the education that the Nursing Department offered, including clinicals.
“We were all hesitant and scared to learn how we would proceed with our courses,” says Roque, a surgical intensive care unit intern at Yale New Haven.
“When [COVID-19] came to Connecticut, my first reaction was ‘I hope this doesn’t affect my nursing school,’” says Estores. “I didn’t foresee myself being able to learn in nursing school online. It may have jeopardized my whole nursing education.”
Within weeks, the virus spread and Connecticut hospitals called for assistance in preparation for surges in patient care. So, the state put out a call for retired nurse practitioners to return to the field, and for nursing students to receive accelerated training.
Nursing students were hired and placed in facilities to provide a variety of care to COVID-19 patients, including taking vitals, EKGs, cleaning up after them, administering breathing exercises and assisting other doctors and nurses.
Safety was a No. 1 priority—hospitals required the nursing students to wear full personal protection equipment when directly interacting with patients. Working among very sick patients, there were concerns about infections among doctors and fellow nurses.
Dawson recalls learning about two nurses on her floor testing positive for the virus, and the actions taken afterward, which included shutting down areas of congregation for her staff.
“It made everyone anxious, and a little nervous about coming into work,” says Dawson. “At the beginning, we didn’t know much about transmission. We didn’t know what to do exactly to keep COVID-19 in the COVID-19 rooms and not in the hallways or break room.”
Patients infected with COVID-19 were left in isolation due to the severity of their illness, so patient care associates, such as Calabrese, stepped in to give emotional support at their bedsides.
To her, companionship is a voluntary reaction, and a major factor in the healing process.
“I knew these patients were extremely lonely because they didn’t have visitors,” says Calabrese. “If I had the opportunity, I would try to spend time with them, and talk with them and hear their stories. If they’re lonely, how are they going to get better?”
The toll of the pandemic on their mental health was a topic these nursing students did not shy away from. Fearing they would bring the virus home to their families and friends, anxiety and stress was felt among all: for their school, social and professional lives.
“It did not do me well,” says Estores. “Personally speaking, after a couple of weeks of working, I felt I was safer at work than I was in public. At work, I know there are proper PPE for me to wear and change into. In public, all I have is a surgical mask that I’m not sure can take me very far.”
Even though Dawson says young people handle the effects of the virus well, she was nervous about virus transmission to her parents, grandparents and social circles.
“It definitely made me very anxious all around,” says Dawson. “I was anxious to go into work because I didn’t want to contract COVID. And then I was anxious coming home because I didn’t want to interact with my parents, just in case I brought something home. You didn’t know if it was on your clothes or on your shoes.”
Bailon saw the pandemic through the lens of Connecticut’s elderly and vulnerable populations. In her interactions with patients, she has to don full PPE in any given situation. Her mission was to bring hope and stay strong for her patients, who also were devoid of visits from friends and family.
“You see these patients in their most vulnerable states, so it takes a lot out of you,” said Bailon, a certified nursing assistant at Fairview Retirement Home in Groton.
Yale Health partnered with local universities by starting a “Bridge to Professional Development” program for students entering their final semester, needing those crucial clinical hours before graduation.
This program was imperative for Southern seniors when campus closed and operations shifted online, as nursing majors and faculty began working in hospitals, with some becoming infected with the virus themselves.
Experience at hospitals is necessary for the exams nursing students take in the months following graduation. Nursing students must be accredited by the state regulatory board on their way to becoming registered nurses.
Accreditation is administered through the NCLEX (National Council Licensure Exam), which measures the competency of the nursing graduates. In past years, Southern nursing graduates have passed in the 95 to 100 percent success rates.
According to Maria Krol, BSN program director, 60 percent of the students who passed the NCLEX exam go on to be hired by the Yale Health system in Connecticut, which includes Yale New Haven, Saint Raphael’s and Bridgeport Hospital, among others.
As a result, Southern’s nursing program has been recognized both regionally and nationally for these accomplishments, and droves of graduates and alumni end up working in local health-care facilities.
Bailon understood the severity of the disease—many of her patients were infected with COVID-19. Some recovered, then had to deal with the lingering, long-term symptoms, culminating in their deaths.
“Some of them recovered, but some of them declined really rapidly,” says Bailon. “At the nursing home as opposed to a hospital, it can become their home. Where I work, they can live there for years and years.”
During her time at Hartford Hospital, Roque recalls a patient’s death due to coronavirus complications. Without any family by their bedside due to visitor restrictions, nurses such as Roque stepped in to be with these patients in their final moments.
“It was a difficult thing to tell [the family],” says Roque, who provided comfort care to this patient, and with another nurse informed the family of the death. “I remember the nurse’s voice breaking while talking to the family—it was a very difficult situation.”
As of the spring of 2021, more than 500,000 Americans have died and more than 28.2 million Americans have been infected with COVID-19. Moving from fall to winter, numbers rose with the colder weather in concurrence with a second and third spike of infections.
“Especially with the flu season coming in, I don’t think anything is going away anytime soon,” says Estores during the fall semester. “I personally anticipate an uptick in cases. I’m supposed to graduate next year, so I’m not sure how [Southern] is going to handle upticks.”
Masks, social distancing and limited in-person events—the fall and spring semesters were altered dramatically. Instead of in-person classrooms, lectures and clinicals were online and exams were administered in a socially distanced and modified John Lyman Center for the Performing Arts.
Bailon says she felt anger while seeing others carrying on with large gatherings, not wearing masks and ignoring basic science.
“That was probably one of the most frustrating things for me,” says Bailon. “I felt nervous even going to the grocery store after witnessing the aftermath of COVID.”
These seniors are nearing the end of their college education, preparing to graduate in the spring and enter the professional world. They each say they believe the state of health care has been forever altered due to the pandemic.
“I don’t think we’re ever not going to wear a mask in the health-care profession ever again,” says Dawson. “I think everyone is going to be very hyper aware of their patient’s symptoms.”
They say they feel the pandemic has introduced experiences to future health-care workers that a classroom or clinical cannot replicate.
“It’s different caring for patients, rather than learning how to care for patients, definitely, in this environment,” says Calabrese.
“Working in the hospital, I feel is getting you even more prepared in a sense because you’re dealing with all of the other diagnoses in the nursing care and interventions that you are doing in clinical,” says Dawson. “But you’re also dealing with working with COVID patients and learning proper PPE, actually putting it into practice rather than reading or hearing about working with COVID patients.”
Estores, through his experience at Saint Raphael’s, says he feels humbled working alongside medical professionals, despite the unknowns surrounding the virus.
“I didn’t anticipate living and working through a pandemic,” says Estores. “I’ve gained so much respect for these people. These people are risking their lives, and it goes to show that even if rain, snow, fire, whatever, the world does not stop for those who work in the health-care occupation.”
Southern’s nursing students were inoculated with the newly developed vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna between the fall and spring semesters.
With the vaccine rollout, Roque urges everyone to trust the science and get vaccinated.
Bailon says she could feel the joy and relief as her elderly patients received their first and second doses.
“I know there were a lot of doubts about [the vaccine] in the beginning, but this is one of the few things that can help us move forward and, hopefully, end the pandemic,” says Roque.
To those pursuing an education in health care studies, Dawson wants future nurses and professionals coming to the university to keep moving forward, and find ways to assist and teach others how to keep living in the new realities brought on by the pandemic.
“If you know you want to go into the health care profession in the midst of a pandemic, I feel like you’re doing it for the right reasons,” says Dawson. “Go for it, keep an open mind and keep learning.”
By Jason Edwards
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