The coronavirus pandemic continues to rage on. More than 1.4 million people across the globe have been infected with the disease at the end of April’s first week, and health departments the world over have become increasingly strained. The United States, now the global epicenter of the pandemic, is no stranger to the burden. We reached out to several UNE nursing alumni to tell their stories of working on the front lines of this unprecedented situation. They told us about the challenges they face each day, but they also spread messages of hope. Here are their stories.
Tanner McLaughlin ’19 (Nursing)
Tanner McLaughlin started working at Maine Medical Center in June, just months after earning his bachelor’s degree from UNE. He is housed in the medical telemetry unit, an already stressful floor where patients need constant care. But the arrival of COVID-19 has made things even more intense, he said.
“You can feel the stress in the hospital,” McLaughlin noted. “There’s a lot we still don’t know about the virus and information is constantly changing as we learn new things about it.”
McLaughlin has not worked directly with COVID-19 patients, but he has treated non-COVID patients residing on the same floor. He said Maine Medical Center is going above and beyond federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines in mitigating spread of the novel coronavirus, but anxiety and uncertainty are common among staff at the hospital, who because of the nature of their jobs are at increased risk of contracting the disease.
“We’re all anxious, we’re all scared, but we continue to show up because as nurses, our patients will always come first,” said the 23-year-old Millinocket native. “We’re taking it day by day and doing the best we can.”
The arrival of COVID-19 has rattled many health care workers’ worlds, but McLaughlin said this unprecedented time has reminded him of why he became a nurse in the first place.
“This has made me realize just how resilient health care workers are,” he said. “The pandemic has made me realize that I made the right choice becoming a nurse, and I’m so proud of my fellow nurse colleagues.”
Reed Norton ’19 (Nursing)
Like McLaughlin, Reed Norton began his career in Maine Medical Center’s emergency department (ED) immediately following graduation. As one might expect, the job is never calm, but operations have been pushed to the extreme since the first case of COVID-19 arrived at the hospital in March.
“Being a new graduate in the ED is challenging to begin with. Nurses there are seen as a ‘Jack of All Trades, Master of None,’ so everyone is learning as we go along,” Norton said. “I don’t think anyone expected something of this level, but the morale in the department is high and there is an unspoken sense of knowing that we are all in this together.”
For Norton, of Wells, the impact of the virus has found its way home. His mother, he said, suffers from autoimmune diseases that put her at greater risk of complications from COVID-19. Because of that, he has had to keep his distance.
“The separation from her is probably one of the hardest parts about this pandemic,” he said. “I’m sure people around the world are feeling the same way about their loved ones, but protecting their health and safety will pay off in the long run, which is something I have to remind myself of every day.”
Like McLaughlin, Norton said the stress of working with COVID-19 patients has only helped reaffirm his love of the nursing profession.
“I can’t see myself working in a non-critical setting. The high acuity and constant movement is where I thrive,” he said. “I never thought I’d be working on the front line of a pandemic in my first year of nursing, but it’s definitely something I will never forget, and it will ultimately help me grow as a nurse. That is the silver lining I try to focus on when things get hard.”
Suki Bischoff ’14 (Nursing)
Suki Bischoff began working in the emergency department at Maine Medical Center in 2016. She now spends four hours of her shift caring for COVID-19 patients in a specially designated area of the department.
Bischoff says she is fortunate the hospital is providing her with the best protective equipment, including a PAPR hood – essentially a respirator that protects the user by filtering out contaminants in the air.
“March 13th was really the day that everything changed,” she said. “We made the decision to turn one area into a space strictly for COVID patients and potential COVID patients. It’s an area where our doctors, nurses, techs and other members go in fully equipped with PAPR hoods, gowns, gloves, and booties. It is an area that is all negative pressure.”
Bischoff says she never expected to be facing a situation like this during her nursing career.
“I expected maybe a mass casualty incident, a bomb, a massive car accident, a plane crash or something like that,” she stated. “I never expected a global pandemic in my career. The first week was very surreal, realizing the impact that this would have on our community, our country, our staff, and our families.”
According to Bischoff, the hardest part is not knowing when she will be able to see her family in Massachusetts again.
“I remember at one point talking to them and saying, ‘I most likely won’t see you or be able to hug you or see you in person until two weeks after I take care of my last COVID patient because I need to ensure that I am safe,’ and who knows when that will be,” she said.
Despite the hardships the situation has presented, Bischoff says she is heartened by the outpouring of support the community has been giving her and her colleagues. She also knows she is helping to make a difference.
“We all went into this profession to help,” she explained. “This is our job. We knew that we would be putting ourselves at risk at various points in our careers. This is just one of the risks that we are taking and we are powering through.”