Laurentians in Healthcare Respond to COVID-19
Many St. Lawrence graduates, now working in hospitals and other healthcare facilities across the U.S., have made a vital impact during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The University’s curricula—in science, public health, and even the liberal arts—helped prepare students for the rigors of medical and nursing schools and their careers.
To bring more students interested in healthcare careers to St. Lawrence, the University is preparing to expand our public health curriculum. As donors increase their investment in these efforts, we’ll attract an even more diverse pool of prospective students who will, in turn, offer the University increased financial support for future generations.
In their own words, St. Lawrence alumni now working in healthcare share experiences from their professional lives this year—and some similar reflections from their undergraduate studies. These include using their time on campus to combine their interests in science and caring for others.
That’s how Claire Gardner ’18 describes the path that led her to become a Registered Nurse.
“St. Lawrence offers more than just the sciences,” she says, “and that’s an important distinction. I could have gone to an undergraduate nursing school, but worried what would happen if—after all that—I didn’t want to go into nursing. I knew SLU could open me up to more.”
After earning her RN, Gardner began working in November at Boston’s Massachusetts General Hospital. The facility treated its first COVID-19 patient just a few months later.
“The surge began in March,” she says. “That’s when so many spaces throughout the hospital were converted to Intensive Care Units. The hospital prepared just about all the nursing staff to rotate into COVID care.”
Treating COVID patients required a layer of personal protective equipment (PPE): face mask, face shield, gloves, and gown.
“It was a whole other layer on top of my clothing,” Gardner says. “It was hot. At first, I’d work with a patient, then, as soon as I got out of the room, I’d want to rip off all the PPE. I couldn’t, of course. On those shifts, there were always more patients to treat.”
When she was able to take off the PPE, her mind started racing with questions like, “What if I do something wrong?” Like other healthcare professionals who spoke with St. Lawrence for this story, Gardner leaned on her peers and she praises their abilities to care for patients and each other.
“Being new to the field, it was nerve-wracking,” she says, “but my co-workers gave me so much support. No matter how long someone had been a nurse, we were all learning how to care for these patients and we helped each other with PPE, with treatment protocols, and the emotional impact of seeing so many patients.”
Doug Smith ’05 came to St. Lawrence after visiting (and falling in love with) the campus during a paddling trip to the North Country. He says his science classes at SLU helped prepare him for med school and his current role as a physician in the Danbury Hospital emergency department that serves western Connecticut.
“In this pandemic, we’ve had to think creatively about how to conserve protective equipment, such as extended use of one mask for an entire shift or more. During our peak, we also had to confront hard questions about how to proceed if the onslaught of patients overwhelmed our supply of ventilators. Such challenges do not often arise in modern medicine outside of a pandemic or natural disaster, and we will need to work hard and plan strategically to be better prepared next time.”
Another novel facet of the COVID-19 pandemic: rationing PPE and other healthcare necessities.
“In this country,” Smith says, “we’ve been very fortunate to provide the care that’s needed when a patient arrives. That includes having the right medicines, equipment, and processes in place. Fortunately, at my hospital, we did not have to ration care, but like every other facility in the U.S., we’ve switched to extended periods of time wearing our face masks and other PPE. Over the course of my career, this is the first time we had to consider how to use scarce resources.”
Kadine Hamilton ’08 simply wanted to help people. That desire drew her to St. Lawrence and ultimately to a nursing career. Now at Lenox Hill Hospital in Manhattan, she has experience in intensive care units.
“We had so many patients who were critically ill,” she says. “The nurses and doctors had never seen anything like this pandemic. Before the surge, Lenox Hill had four ICUs, each with 12 beds. At the height of the surge, 10 more ICUs were created within the hospital to accommodate the influx.”
he virulence of COVID-19 meant that many patients also needed intubating, the insertion, down the throat and into the airway, of a tube allowing a ventilator to pump air into and out of a patient’s lungs.
“Before COVID,” Hamilton says, “we would intubate one, maybe two patients during a shift. One night, I remember, we had to intubate at least seven patients in one shift.”
Despite the best efforts of doctors and nurses, mortality rates continued to climb. The hospital’s small morgue became full and a refrigerated semi-trailer was brought in to hold the bodies of the deceased.
“I don’t think I fully understood the scale of the surge and the impact it had on patient mortality,” she says, “until I saw the second refrigerated semi-trailer being parked next to the first one.”
Christian Jennette ’19 is a patient care technician in a Rochester, NY emergency department.
“For me, the biggest adjustment was building a personal connection with patients suspected of having COVID-19. I was covered, head to toe, in PPE. Approaching these patients, I was often greeted with a look of despair and concern as they awaited information. Being completely covered, it was difficult to use facial expressions and smiles to put patients at ease. They could only see me in the photo ID I wore over my scrubs. The hurried pace and increased demands of the emergency department left little time for bedside conversation. The added stress and exhaustion of 12- to 13-hour shifts made it hard to stay positive.”
In the spring of 2020, Sarah Wright ’19 was a patient care technician in the Highland Hospital’s Emergency Department. She is now a registered nurse at the hospital.
“It was a huge adjustment being trained to determine which COVID patients would be treated first,” she says.
In Rochester, she adds, the surge was sporadic. Some days were “ghostly quiet,” others “overwhelming and exhausting.”
“I think the hardest part was the ‘No Visitor’ policy and having to turn away patients’ nervous and fearful family members.”
Krista Martin ’08 is a rehab director and certified occupational therapy assistant at a skilled nursing facility in Wisconsin.
“It became hard to go to—and come home from—work. On the way in, I worried what I would find. How were the patients and my co-workers? How would people react to ever-changing and increasingly limited visitation policies? We treated many dementia patients and that means caring for their family members, too. For these people, the fear and grief over losing daily contact was real and growing.”
After pulling into her driveway, Martin says, it took about an hour to feel “decontaminated enough” to be with her family.
“I had to navigate getting from my car to my shower without potentially exposing my family. After working all day, my husband needed a break and my kids needed their mom (and I needed dinner). But all that had to wait until I decontaminated. Then, it was bedtime and I’d wake up in the morning and do it all over again.”
Stewart Lonky ’68 came to St. Lawrence for the liberal arts education that allowed him to study topics in addition to medicine.
“After three years at St. Lawrence, I was accepted by every med-school where I applied.” After nearly 50 years focusing on pulmonary medicine and critical care—as a physician, researcher, and instructor—he works primarily now with patients at his clinic in Los Angeles.
“One of the big problems caused by COVID-19 is fear,” he says. “Of course this pandemic is concerning and preventive measures must be taken, but I worry about my patients who need care but are afraid, now, to leave their homes for a medical examination. These people have serious lung conditions and complications. They need attention. I don’t want panic and uncertainty to claim more lives, in addition to all those who have died from this virus.”
Nancy Austin ’83 has many certifications: registered nurse, nurse practitioner, and hospitalist, the term for healthcare professionals who treat patients admitted to medical facilities.
“We wore the space suits. The full-body coveralls with big respirators on our heads. These suits are high-level personal protection equipment. Wearing them, we looked like astronauts.” This type of PPE is hot, cumbersome, and it made some nurse-patient interactions a little more challenging. “You could sense some isolation felt by the patients, who weren’t allowed visitors. But a few of them asked, ‘When you get far enough away from me, can you take off your mask so I can see your face?’ They just wanted to know what I looked like under all that protective gear on my head. So, I’d get to the door of their room, take down my face mask, and wave. They’d smile and wave back. That touched my heart.”