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USM Nursing Graduates Battle COVID-19 Pandemic on Front Lines

Over the past several months, the relentless COVID-19 pandemic has overwhelmed the nation’s hospitals and created an unimaginable strain on the professionals who work there. None more so than the nurses who occupy the exhaustive front lines.

University of Southern Mississippi nursing graduates Travis Rodgers, William Quinn and Lynn Olsen find themselves right in the middle of the crisis as part of COVID-19 response teams at Ochsner Medical Center in New Orleans. To date, Louisiana has reported more than 110,000 COVID-19 cases with approximately 3,700 deaths. The death toll includes about 1,100 from the New Orleans area.

Rodgers, a Gulfport, Miss., native had been working in the NeuroScience ICU at Ochsner until the pandemic forced hospital staffs to reassign personnel to combat the rapid surge in patients. Where he once worked four 12-hour shifts in a week, Rodgers has added a fifth shift to his schedule.

Like many of his colleagues, Rodgers had no experience dealing with a contagion of this magnitude.

“I feel that I speak for many professionals when I say that I had never imagined that I would be working within such a global situation,” said Rodgers. “COVID-19 has taken both a physical and emotional toll on many of our staff members that have remained at the bedside during this crisis.”

Nurses confront death and dying on a daily basis. Yet, what Rodgers has encountered in the fight against COVID-19 rises to the extraordinary level.

“The death toll for the New Orleans area was becoming increasingly worrisome,” he said. “While we are trying to protect ourselves, we are also constantly adapting in an attempt to give the best care possible to our patients. At one point the virus was taking away the lives of entire families. Once one member tested positive, it would quickly spread throughout the household.”

Fortunately, Rodgers has managed to avoid contracting the highly contagious disease. Such is not the case for USM graduate Lynn Olsen, who also works at Ochsner as an ICU Registered Nurse. What began as a sore throat in mid-March, turned into a positive test for COVID-19 two days later.

After undergoing quarantine for three weeks, Olsen returned the ICU front lines, working as part of a float pool at four locations within the system. She says that what astounds her about this particular virus is its unpredictability.

“What strikes me the most is how different the virus affects individuals – from no symptoms whatsoever to multi organ failure and subsequent death,” said Olsen.

Olsen, who grew up in nearby Marrero, La., earned her BSN from USM in 2013. She calls the decision to become a nurse “a fully practical one.” And one that was made a little later in life than normal, at age 41. Today she concedes that the decision has been weighing heavily on her mind.

“I have questioned this decision many times in the past four months, as I could have a bigger salary and safer job in several other professions,” said Olsen. “I am considering returning to school for an advanced degree, not in nursing. I am also considering leaving hospital work for another area of healthcare where I can use my degree and license but work remotely.”

Quinn is a 2013 graduate of USM who has worked for the past three years as a flight nurse for Ochsner Flight Care. The Picayune, Miss., native comes from a family of nurses. He says that the training he received at USM, coupled with on-the-job experience, has helped him handle the pressures associated with COVID-19.

“Nurses encounter infectious diseases all the time,” he said. “We are trained on how to properly use personal protective equipment during nursing school and training is typically reinforced by employers annually.”

That being said, nothing could have prepared Quinn for the raging COVID-19 pandemic.

“If you had told me back in December of 2019 that by the spring of 2020 I’d be wearing a respirator, gown, gloves, and surgical cap to interact with a multitude of patients sick with a novel virus that was filling up hospitals’ intensive care units left and right, I doubt I would have believed you,” he said.

Dr. Lachel Story, Dean of USM’s College of Nursing and Health Professions, has remained in steady contact with many of the University’s nursing graduates during this national crisis. She worries about the burdensome price nurses are paying on the front lines of the pandemic.

“They discuss how sick the patients are and how concerned they are that things have not improved, and in some areas are worse,” said Story. “The intensity of this level of care is difficult to maintain over an extended period of time. It is critical that we are caring for the mental and physical health of our nurses and other healthcare professionals on the front lines, so they can better care for the patients.”

While no amount of education or training can fully prepare nurses to confront a global monster like COVID-19, Story credits the USM program for giving graduates important tools.

The USM program provides content and simulation experiences around emergency and disaster preparedness and response. Students are taught how to respond to disasters such as natural disasters, fires, bombs, and other mass casualty situations.

“These situations usually require short-term responses, but they have a lot of implications for the current pandemic,” said Story. “Additionally, students learn to care for patients with other conditions spread through airborne droplets such as tuberculosis. Ultimately, our students receive education and training regarding team leadership, prioritizing care and delegation which is critical in a crisis that requires complex management.”

While the COVID-19 virus is noted most for its attack on a patient’s respiratory system, Rodgers has seen first-hand the damage caused in other areas.

“Something that many may not be aware of is that the virus is capable of making patients hypercoagulable. This means that the blood is thicker than average and will clot much quicker,” said Rodgers. “With this becoming an issue, some infected patients will suffer from clots that can lead to single or multiple strokes. During the process of learning about the virus, we would take patients off their sedation in an attempt to remove them from their ventilators. Following this, we began to notice that some patients were not waking up due to massive strokes.”

Story hopes to share the experiences of USM nursing alumni and various other healthcare providers in a virtual panel discussion this fall titled: “Stories from the Front Lines of the COVID-19 Crisis.” Plans call for the virtual panel to be open to students, faculty, clinical partners and the Hattiesburg community.

Story notes that USM nursing faculty and students have shifted their customary research efforts to focus on issues related to the COVID-19 crisis, such as stress and wellness.

“We are hoping the lessons learned from this research will help us better prepare for similar crises in the future as well as help those current nurses and other healthcare professionals on the front lines,” she said.

The COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 is far from finished. Every U.S. state has enacted restrictions aimed at curbing the virus’ spread. While the news remains dire and the death toll rises, Quinn believes there is optimistic light at the end of the current tunnel.

“I think we are learning how to better treat these patients every day as well as how to shift hospital units around to protect other patient populations that are even more at risk if they encounter the virus,” said Quinn. “Nursing, like medicine, is a science and a practice. We are always learning how to better treat and care for our patients. Sometimes, we just need a little time to find out what works best.”

To learn more about the nursing program at USM, call 601.266.5445 or visit: https://www.usm.edu/nursing-health-professions/index.php

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