As the effects of the coronavirus are palpable at every level of American life, men and women from Juneau are spread across the country, fighting the disease in their own ways.
“It’s busy. It’s sad. It’s challenging. I’m learning a lot,” said Erin Pratt, a registered nurse serving in the intensive care unit at a hospital outside of New York City, one of the biggest concentrations of COVID-19 related casualties. “The teamwork, the bond between all of us as an ICU staff is so strong. You truly do feel like you’re in the trenches, like you’re fighting this war next to these people, and you’d do anything for them.”
Symptoms of COVID-19 can include fever, cough and breathing trouble. Most people develop only mild symptoms, but some people, usually those with other medical complications, develop more severe or fatal symptoms.
Pratt graduated from nursing school in New York last fall, beginning her work as an RN in the maternity department at her hospital. When the scale of the pandemic became apparent, she requested a transfer to the ICU to serve where the need would be greatest.
“I worked as a maternity nurse for six months-ish, and one morning, after morning huddle, I felt like I wanted to volunteer to help,” Pratt said.
She was transferred to the ICU that night.
New world, new rules
“If we were two years older, we’d be in the thick of it, or even a year older. You do have the skills to help, but you’re still learning, so you’re also in the way,” said Lenka Craigova, a third-year medical student from Juneau studying at University of Wisconsin-Madison. “I know there’s a lot of FOMO (fear of missing out) for a lot of students. Like there’s things that we can do, but we don’t want to take away resources from people who are more qualified.”
Craigova said in the early stages of the outbreak, med students offered to do a lot of things like dog watching and babysitting for doctors and other medical professionals who were taking on more and longer shifts in response to the pandemic.
Distancing guidelines have stopped that, Craigova said.
“It’s definitely changed things. To some extent, I imagine the hospital is going to look a bit different,” said Nathaniel Ord, who’s finishing up his time as a med student with the University of Washington and will begin his residency in Boise, Idaho in June. “I know a lot of places canceled all elective procedures to make room for a surge of COVID-19 patients. It’s nice to know that we’re needed. I’m starting residency, which is my first job as a developing physician, and know there’s going to be a demand for those things.”
Many of the long-standing components of med school had been pushed online or obviated completely, Craigova said.
“In the early part of March, we were phased out,” Craigova said. “Before we were phased out, we weren’t able to see any patients with any respiratory illness. For a lot of people, you imagined your life was going to look one way and then everything shifted. In medical school your life is planned out to the day, and this threw a wrench into everything. ”
Ord said he’s been helping out as the City and Borough of Juneau has stood up its drive-thru testing center, run by Capital City Fire/Rescue.
“It’s an interesting time to be going into medicine in general,” Ord said. “Looking at the data, there’s a few young people who are getting sick, and I think health care workers are at a severe risk of developing an illness.”
Craigova said the guilt of not being able to contribute directly to the fight is real and weighty, but the school is looking for other options to make use of the resources the med students represent. Telemedicine, or helping people over phone or video chats, is one of the frequently mentioned methods for leveraging those assets.
“We’re missing out on the fight. You’re always carrying this guilt of ‘is there something I can do?’” Craigova said. “They are looking for the opportunity for third and fourth year med students to go to smaller clinics outside of the city. As a student, you’re kinda aware of all the things you don’t know. You don’t know enough. But we can help out.”
In the trenches
For Pratt, recently graduated, there’s no theoreticals.
“If I was still in school, I would feel like there was so much more I wanted to do to help,” Pratt said. “You do your best. The virus takes its own path and you do your best to support these people as they go through their own battle with it.”
While the first wave of casualties has eased off a little, the war is a long way from won.
“We’re in kind of a little bit of an ebb and flow,” Pratt said “At first, it was like a storm, and it never stopped. We quadrupled the capacity of the ICU.”
While Pratt said she and her coworkers are bearing up, any prolonged conflict will take its toll.
“People are definitely tired. This has gone on for a long time and there’s no end in sight,” Pratt said. “People are working four, five, six shifts a week. Our community has been amazing sending food and care packages.”
Like enlisting knowing one was headed into a war, Ord said that taking up his residency shortly will be an interesting time.
“I’m as worried as maybe anyone is,” Ord said. “I think it’s an interesting time to go into family medicine.”
• Contact reporter Michael S. Lockett at 757.621.1197 or email@example.com.