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TROY nursing faculty, students on front lines of COVID-19 fight

May 4, 2020

The effects of COVID-19 continue to be felt everywhere in the world, but those effects are especially potent for healthcare workers.

Since the coronavirus became a global pandemic, hospitals and clinics have been filled with patients, some suffering from the virus and others dealing with other conditions or stresses that may be related to it.

Many Troy University School of Nursing faculty members and students have seen these impacts first-hand through their work in the healthcare field, working long hours and facing unprecedented challenges.

“It’s been a little unnerving,” said Dr. Shellye Vardaman, a Professor of Nursing currently working as a PRN staff nurse in the intensive care unit of Troy Regional Medical Center. “It’s more getting ready to go in. Once you get there, your nerves are kind of settled, but just the thought of getting ready to go in and ‘gear up’ makes you anxious. You just don’t know what to expect when you walk in the door. I became a nurse when HIV was first becoming a problem, and I worked through Ebola, SARS and MERS, but nothing compares to this.”

While Pike County cases have been relatively low in volume, Vardaman said it’s still been affecting both patients and nurses in a variety of ways.

“At Troy we’ve not experienced the acuity some other facilities have had, which is fortunate because we are a lot smaller facility, and I pray that it stays that way,” she said. “We have a whole side of our ICU reserved for COVID-19 patients. We only have nine beds in ICU, so it limits our availability for everyone. A lot of these nurses have young children. Many are having to home school their kids as well. They’re having to find someone to stay home with their kids, working 12 hours plus, some of their spouses may be firefighters and other first responders, and they’re concerned about bringing this home to their kids, or their kids spreading it to elderly grandparents. It’s very concerning from that perspective.”

Dr. Stacey Jones, an Associate Professor of Nursing, has spent 19 years as a family nurse practitioner with Southern Health Associates, and COVID-19 has changed the way she meets with most of her patients.

“There was almost an overnight change from seeing patients face-to-face to telehealth,” Jones said. “We’re trying to take care of our patients remotely, which has been interesting. We also have had to change how the patients are allowed in the office for their allergy shots. We’ve had to screen them before they get in the building, and their car is now the waiting room.”

She has used technology, including apps such as FaceTime and Facebook Messenger, to examine patients remotely.

“It has been a huge change with the way we provide care as primary care providers to our populations,” Jones said. “For those who may have COVID-19, we send them to Troy Regional to be tested. We try to keep them home and treat their symptoms. Keeping people out of the hospital is our goal, and yet we still have to take care of people with conditions. Taking care of our diabetics, people with hypertension, people with allergies or strep throat, that still has to happen.”

Telehealth has allowed Jones and her colleagues to help an increased number of people struggling with the effects of the pandemic on their mental health.

“We have a lot of patients with depression and anxiety who are really struggling right now,” she said. “Telehealth has been great with that so they can at least see us and we can make any adjustments to do the best we can to help them.”

Tyler Rockwell, a certified nurse practitioner in his first year of the Doctor of Nursing program, has dealt with many of those mental health cases, working in a psychiatry practice in Birmingham.

“It has been interesting to see how different patients with different diagnoses have handled the pandemic,” said Rockwell, who currently sees patients through video and voice chat. “Patients suffering from social anxiety have done well with being in self-isolation at home. However, patients with generalized anxiety disorder have worried themselves to the bone. New patients have started coming to the practice with adjustment disorders of depression/anxiety because they are unable to cope with the social restrictions. Other patients have fallen off from the practice due to financial issues or loss of insurance.”

While there is no replacement for face-to-face hands-on treatment, Jones said telehealth has been one of the few bright spots during the pandemic, opening some eyes to its viability.

“I think the mental health aspect, they already do a good bit of telehealth, and I could see us doing more of that,” she said. “I could see us, even for patients who have problems with transportation, something along those lines, doing more of that. There’s nothing going to replace bringing a patient in and putting a stethoscope to them, checking on their heart, lungs and so forth, but there are certain things telehealth can be utilized for.”

Jones said she hopes people continue to avoid the hospital unless absolutely necessary.

“People should listen to what their medical providers tell them – call the office, tell their health provider if there’s anything wrong they need to be seen about,” she said. “Let’s not overwhelm our emergency rooms. Let’s take care of as much as we can with primary care physicians and follow the guidelines that come out.”

Vardaman, who continues to work with patients in the ICU, wants people to take COVID-19 seriously.

“It’s very distressing when we see people not taking this seriously,” she said. “This is very real. I teach epidemiology, so this is very interesting to me from that perspective. We’re all in this together.”