IC grads nurse patients on the frontlines of a pandemic
Illinois College alumni in nursing careers are on the frontlines of the coronavirus pandemic in hospitals and clinics across the country.
There are new and frequently changing protocols, personal protective equipment rules, testing and treatments to battle the virus. Nurse practitioner Tiffany Liebe Renfro ’12 described the daily — or near daily — changes as feeling “a bit chaotic.”
Extra precautions are being taken to protect patients, health care workers and everyone they come into contact with. Limits on visitors contribute to empty hallways and waiting rooms — and cause less visible emotional strain.
Mollie Hoerr ’14 said working on the frontlines of the pandemic has been “physically, mentally and emotionally exhausting.” She and her colleagues have been picking up extra shifts and on their days off they’re isolated in self-quarantine — unable to spend time with their family and friends. A registered nurse, Hoerr works in the adult intensive care unit at Rush Oak Park Hospital in Oak Park.
“COVID-19 has hit the Chicago area extremely hard, so we have numerous patients who have tested positive, are on ventilators and are currently fighting for their lives,” she said. “When the virus peaks, I presume that all patients in our ICU will be on ventilators.”
The virus has not discriminated, Hoerr said, attacking the lungs in the young, middle aged and old. Health care providers are doing everything they can, but not everything is known about the new virus. “As health care providers, we reach a point where there's nothing more we can do; we feel helpless and frustrated,” she said. Precautions not allowing visitors have been especially hard.
“It is absolutely heart wrenching that these patients are fighting and dying without their loved ones there to comfort them at the bedside."
“It is absolutely heart wrenching that these patients are fighting and dying without their loved ones there to comfort them at the bedside,” she said. “We have two iPads on our unit we use to FaceTime family members periodically throughout the day or night, but never in a million years did I think this would be the way families would have to communicate or say their final goodbyes to their loved ones.”
Alexis Palumbo ’14 said most people have heard about the shortages of personal protective equipment, but people are not as aware of the emotional strain the pandemic has put on health care workers and patients. Palumbo is a registered nurse in the pediatric cardiac intensive care and adult cardiac surgery departments at BJC HealthCare in the St. Louis area.
For Palumbo’s adult patients, rules barring visitors have meant that nurses more than ever are “advocates and support systems” for their patients. The children she cares for are immunocompromised and at high risk of severe illness because of underlying conditions, “So, each time a caregiver sees a new face both in or out of the hospital, it is a scary moment.” The protocols can also make a hospital stay scarier than it might already be for her young patients.
“You can imagine how much more scared my 18-month-old patient is now that they can no longer see a smiling face."
“You can imagine how much more scared my 18-month-old patient is now that they can no longer see a smiling face,” Palumbo said.
The hospital has felt “different and eerie” since the start of the pandemic, she said. Every week — or more often than that — the world is learning more about the virus. There is “a sense of solidarity among all staff,” but “once bustling hallways are now empty.” With no visitors and fewer patients, waiting room newspapers and magazines are left untouched.
“Different and eerie,” she said, “because before I didn’t constantly worry about bringing something home, but now I’m checking my temperature multiple times throughout the day and taking even more precautions to prevent transmission to myself, my significant other or the grocery store clerk.”
In addition to seeing emergency room patients, Renfro now puts on a powered air-purifying respirator, gown and gloves to help staff the mass triage area at Memorial Medical Center in Springfield. She has also had to make changes to her practice and tries to conserve resources. She added, “It can be challenging to make the decision of who gets what and why.”
Renfro cautions that “the seriousness of COVID-19 is real.” She and her colleagues are working hard to educate patients, knowing that there is a significant amount of misinformation about the coronavirus.
“There is no need to panic, but you should stay educated and abreast of the information provided, such as that from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or the World Health Organization."
“There is no need to panic, but you should stay educated and abreast of the information provided, such as that from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or the World Health Organization,” she said. “Also, I cannot stress how important it is to maintain social distance and stay home. If you think boredom is bad, think of how badly you'd feel if one of your family members or loved ones was exposed to the virus because of you.”
Palumbo encourages the IC community to stay positive and enjoy the outdoors. “For everyone struggling and trying to just make it through the stay-at-home order, you are amazing and can do this,” she said. Palumbo said her experiences at IC taught her about inquiry, which has helped her in the face of an ever-changing situation with new information all the time.
“IC prepared me to be flexible and understanding that not all questions are going to have an answer,” she said. “My experiences at IC also prepared me for emotional connections with strangers who come from different backgrounds from myself.”
Community support has been widespread and encouraging for nurses and other health care workers. Hoerr said it gives her “the hope and courage to keep fighting this battle.”
“From the countless food deliveries, to a local Girl Scout troop writing numerous letters and words of encouragement we have posted around our unit, to the individuals who covered our sidewalks surrounding the entire hospital with gratitude and encouragement, to the clapping and cheering in the surrounding neighborhoods at shift change — thank you,” she said.
To learn more about the nursing at Illinois College, visit www.ic.edu/nursing.