Two Mary Baldwin alumni, who are also husband and wife, Travis Womble ’17 (from the first class of MBU’s RN-to-BSN program) and Jenny Terrell Womble ’07 are working at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) Health System in Richmond. Jenny is an operating room nurse, and Travis is a nurse in the medical respiratory intensive care unit (ICU) which cares for patients with the worst complications from COVID-19.
From Travis Womble:
Being a critical care nurse in one of the primary units dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, I get a very unique perspective on this. On one hand, there is this tragedy unfolding around me on a daily basis. I see patients who were generally healthy one day, then on death’s doorstep a few days later. But that’s somewhat the norm in critical care.
The hard part is having to be the only real connection between my patient and their loved ones. Normally, most of our patients would have someone — be it a spouse, child, parent, or friend — at their side. That person is there to talk with them, hold their hand, and help them make difficult decisions. With the pandemic, however, we’ve had to make the decision to eliminate visitation throughout the hospital. This leaves patients alone in the hospital and families alone at home with me being the intermediary passing messages back and forth and keeping families updated about their loved one’s condition.
Personally and in our work at the hospital, the biggest challenge we’re facing is the unknown. Our safety protocols are constantly in flux since we don’t know when supplies of protective equipment will run out. We are inventing new techniques to reuse equipment that was designed for single use. But the toughest unknown is not knowing which patients will take a bad turn and which ones won’t. Many people who are infected never show any signs of it. Others will have mild symptoms, but suddenly become critical with no warning. I have seen patients seem fine when I walk into their room for simple, routine care, but end up on a ventilator by the time I can leave the room.
To keep myself going through this, I just have to remember that this is my chosen profession. I’ve been involved in dangerous jobs since I was a teenager. Before nursing, I was a firefighter and paramedic, having started as a volunteer paramedic when I was 16 and later moving on to career positions. I spent 15 years putting myself in harm’s way before I went to nursing school. I worked in what were, at the time, some of the most violent neighborhoods in the country. When I went to work at a major university-based hospital, I knew that I was trading the threat of collapsing buildings and gang violence for the threat of invisible pathogens. I also recognized that many of the pathogens would not necessarily be the ones we know much about.
Just like the Force in Star Wars, however, everything has balance. For all the bad, there are also great things I get to see. I get to see firsthand what is happening, what is changing, and what is being done to combat COVID-19. I see new treatments being tested on a continuous basis. I get the unfiltered version of what everyone else only gets to learn through the media. I get to be a part of history as I’m a small part of the worldwide team combating a virus that appeared out of nowhere.
I also get to see miracles on a continuous basis. I see patients to whom we gave no real chance of survival make these amazing recoveries. More than once I came to work after a few days’ break and saw an empty room where I’d had a COVID-positive patient. Expecting to be told that they had passed away because they had been so sick previously, I learned that they were actually doing better and had been moved to a step-down unit. These miracles and knowing that I’m part of a historical event help balance out all the bad.
From Jenny Womble:
As with everyone we are feeling the pain of social distancing. It is difficult to stay away from our family, and it is hard to explain to our children (who are 7 years old, 6 years old, and 20 months old) why we cannot go places or why different events have been postponed. We have to walk a fine line between keeping them informed and not scaring or overwhelming them with information. Despite this, we are staying positive.
At work, the biggest challenge we are facing while caring for our patients is simply having the PPE [personal protective equipment] needed. Even prior to COVID-19, there was an international shortage of surgical gowns and masks, and in the OR [operating room] this is our form of PPE during surgery. Unfortunately, the current pandemic has made it even more difficult to obtain these essentials, so we are rationing gowns, surgical masks, and N95s [the specific type of cup-shaped mask that covers the nose and mouth and filters the air]. This challenge, though, has sparked new processes such as using UV light to clean and disinfect N95 masks so that we can reuse them safely. This has been such a help to our individual units.
Outside of work, the biggest challenge is seeing people being complacent about wearing masks or hearing stories of people not distancing themselves. It is disheartening.
It is hard to put into words what keeps us going. In the simplest way we are just called to serve. This is our calling in life to take care of the sick. It is business as usual at work just with a few new processes and concerns. As Travis says, we knew what we were “signing up” for becoming nurses. We do not choose the patients we care for, we take care of them all. We treat everyone from prisoners to priests the same when they are in need of care.
The support the community has given us is encouraging. From meals to sidewalk art to little sticky notes on our vehicles, the words of encouragement mean a lot.
At work I am proud of how my team has come together despite the obstacles that we are facing. As an OR nurse, I am deployed to other areas to assist and train while also taking calls and additional shifts. Our team members are taking care of very sick patients and facing the same challenges, both at work and home, but we remain compassionate and caring to each other. We have come even closer as a team.
What I am most proud of though is how my children are handling this. We have taught them to look for the positive even if it’s just for a moment. They are so resilient with the ever-changing situation. They understand that we have to take care of our patients. Our daughter loves to write little notes saying that she loves us, and our sons are the comic relief that we need after a long shift. They bring so much joy to our lives.