‘This Is My Chosen Profession’: MBU’s Healthcare Professionals on the Front Lines

MBU students, faculty, and alumni in healthcare professions dedicate themselves to giving care. During the coronavirus pandemic, they shoulder many burdens: personal risk, changing conditions, long hours, and lack of resources. Despite the challenges, they find inspiration in their work and in their patients. 

Helping others when they need it most. That’s what these students and alumni do every day with compassion and skill. Here are some of MBU’s healthcare professionals describing how they’re finding ways to manage while working on the front lines.    

Left: Operating room nurse Jenny Terrell Womble ’07 with husband Travis Womble ’17 at the Virginia Commonwealth University Health System in Richmond. Travis is a nurse in the medical respiratory intensive care unit, which cares for patients with the worst complications from COVID-19. Right: Caroline Taylor ’21, occupational therapist and student in MBU’s online post-professional occupational therapy doctoral program, works 10-hour shifts in acute care at a hospital in Greenville, North Carolina.

Jenny Terrell Womble ’07 and Travis Womble ’17

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.

Caroline Taylor ’21

Caroline Taylor ’21, occupational therapist (OT) and certified stroke rehabilitation specialist, is also a student in MBU’s online post-professional occupational therapy doctoral (PPOTD) program. She works in acute care in a hospital located in Greenville, North Carolina. 

During the pandemic, I feel like many other people have had to slow down their typical pace of life, while mine has increased tremendously. My work schedule has changed to working four days, 10 hours, starting every other weekend. Before COVID-19, I used to work five days, eight hours, every fourth weekend. There have also been new standards for work such as increasing productivity and demands, resulting in more quantity of therapy versus having more time for quality. 

The patients that I work with every day keep me going. My patients, who have had a stroke or other neurological event in the midst of this pandemic, are not allowed to have family visit them in the hospital at this time. I have had the desire to spend more time with patients in therapy sessions, due to the fact that they are in the hospital going through a life-changing event alone. This situation has given me a new perspective of compassion and empathy. I am most proud of being a part of my current hospital and therapy team, as we support each other through this uncertain time.

In regards to schoolwork, I have had to adjust when I complete my assignments for the week. I use time on my days off to catch up on rest and complete schoolwork, whereas with my normal schedule I had more time to complete it after work. 

The PPTOD program has been so helpful. I feel supported from my professors as they frequently check in on me and remind me to keep a good work-life balance in these stressful times. I have a classmate who is also working in a hospital environment, though we’re located in different states, so we have also collaborated and supported each other from afar as we go through similar experiences. It has also been nice to pour myself into schoolwork and keep my mind focused on a goal during this time, as well.

Left: Upcoming RN-to-BSN program graduate, Stacy Brown ’20 is a nurse at Sentara RMH Medical Center critical care unit in Harrisonburg. Right: Faculty member in the RN-to-BSN program Monica Heck is working at Augusta Health’s urgent care COVID-19 testing center in Waynesboro.

Faculty member Monica Heck, Stacy Brown ’20, Stephanie Touloupas ’20, and Ellen Sparks ’20

Murphy Deming College of Health Sciences at MBU shared several stories and photos of students and faculty carrying out vital work in healthcare settings locally and across the country during the pandemic.  

Faculty member in the RN-to-BSN program Monica Heck, DNP, is working at Augusta Health’s urgent care COVID-19 testing center in Waynesboro.

It’s all in a day’s work. Just tested my first patient in full hazmat.

An upcoming RN-to-BSN program graduate, Stacy Brown ’20 is a working nurse at Sentara RMH Medical Center critical care unit in Harrisonburg.

Using our PPE [personal protective equipment] for as long as we have it.

Occupational therapy student Stephanie Touloupas ’20 completed a clinical rotation during the pandemic, working at Southeastern Therapy for Kids, an outpatient pediatric clinic in Virginia Beach. 

It has been eye-opening to see what new possibilities we can offer clients to ensure that progress is still being made towards their meaningful occupations. At Southeastern Therapy for Kids, we were still able to see many children in the clinic, and offer telehealth and home health services to those who could not make it in. I have appreciated the challenge of giving children meaningful treatment sessions using what was available to them in their homes. 

This pandemic has also shifted the needs of children, and I have enjoyed coming up with more movement activities and strategies to remain attentive during online schooling. Parent education has also become a larger focus, and we help teach them ways to explain this pandemic to their children and how to create kid-friendly and social distance-friendly adventures to keep their children engaged and active throughout the day. 

OT student Ellen Sparks ’20 is working on a pediatric clinical rotation at Children’s Therapy TEAM in Bentonville, Arkansas.

I’ve learned how to quickly turn around a caseload for home health visits and learned how telehealth works. I’ve had the chance to use creativity to come up with interventions that are fun, engaging, and educational for the parent and client through telehealth.

Note: Responses have been edited for grammar, style, and length.