Nurses celebrated for their work during COVID-19 pandemic

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Nursing wasn’t a career Jen Holtman had much interest in growing up.

But her grandmother, who was a nurse, knew better.

“She always told me I would become a nurse, to which I replied, ‘I don’t like blood, I don’t like needles. Not happening,’” Holtman said.

In 2002, her grandmother was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor, and Holtman became her caretaker. It was during that time she learned she was destined to follow in her grandmother’s footsteps.

“Before she died, I told her I would go to nursing school,” Holtman said. “Of course, her reply was, ‘I told you.’”

Holtman graduated from nursing school in December 2006 and now has 14 years of experience in the field. She currently works in the surgical department at Schneck Medical Center in Seymour.

“But I go wherever I am needed,” she said.

The hospital has nearly 300 nurses, including licensed practical nurses, certified nursing assistants, registered nurses and advanced practice nurses.

They demonstrate compassion, skill and knowledge in the simplest task to the most complex procedure.

National Nurses Week kicked off last Wednesday and ends today, which is also the 200th anniversary of the birth of Florence Nightingale, who is credited with founding nursing as a profession.

Amy Pettit, vice president of patient care services and chief nursing officer at Schneck, said she continues to be amazed by the hospital’s nurses commitment to patients.

“You are the heroes at the front line of care. Your patient-first mentality, caring hands, and loving hearts are the face of healthcare,” Pettit said. “Today and every day, I am thankful to work with nurses like you.”

Right now, Holtman is using her skills and passion in the intensive care unit to take care of patients diagnosed with COVID-19.

“It’s like nothing you can imagine,” she said. “There is so much heart and soul caring for these patients who are the sickest of the sick.”

Holtman said what makes caring for COVID-19 patients so difficult is that they can’t have their families with them. Schneck, however, is helping patients set up video conferencing so they can see and talk to their loved ones.

“It is hard to hear their conversations with loved ones via Zoom,” Holtman said. “Some of them are heartbreaking.”

But Holtman and the other nurses do their best to be everything their patients need.

“We are the only hands touching them. The only voice they hear. We do everything for them,” she said.

For some people, the job could be too emotionally taxing, but for nurses, it’s all in a day’s work.

“You wake up in the morning, say a prayer and ask God to get you through the day,” Holtman said. “Then you go to work and look at the faces of those you know you will be with all day.”

Working with COVID-19 patients was not a mandatory assignment, but one for which she volunteered, she said. And, she’d do it again if faced with the same choice.

“It has been a blessing, and it has changed my life positively,” she said.

Her attitude stems from the support she gets from fellow nurses and doctors along with the community and the gratitude of patients.

“I love being a nurse, because I feel we make a difference,” she said.

One of the best rewards of the job is when a patient gets better, she added.

“Seeing a patient wheeled out of the hospital after you have seen how bad their condition was is amazing,” she said.

Holtman said she still thanks her grandmother for showing her the way.

“When I was a child, my grandmother told me, ‘If you are going to be a nurse, be a good one. If you aren’t going to do that, don’t waste anyone’s time.’ That has stuck with me,” Holtman said. “I love what I do.”

Lauren Earl, a nurse in Schneck’s emergency department nurse, can’t recall a defining moment when she knew she wanted to be a nurse, but after six years in the field, she can’t imagine doing anything else.

“I just remember I was drawn to caring for others,” she said. “I knew it was my calling.”

She too is working with COVID-19 patients and said it is a privilege to help them feel better and calm their fears.

“This is a new disease and we are still learning about it,” she said. “It is scary when you stop and think about the risk, but you just have to stay focused and be very careful.”

Earl said the strong bond between the emergency department staff along with the support of the community has made it easy to keep her spirits up.

“The constant treats, messages and cards from our community has been such a blessing to us all during this time,” she said. “It is amazing to see all the expressions of love. I feel so blessed to have been born and raised in this small town with such a big heart.”

But she said it’s her faith that has given her the strength to go to work every day knowing she’s where she’s supposed to be.

“God has given me strength to continue to do what he has called me to do,” she said.

That doesn’t mean being a nurse is easy, especially in those cases when there’s nothing else that can be done.

“I think that the most difficult part about being a nurse is when there is something we cannot fix,” she said. “Nurses naturally want to fix problems, so it is difficult to watch patients and their families suffer when there is no more we can humanly do to save them.”

Being able to help save a life helps make up for all the pain and heartache, she added.

“I love being able to sit and talk with my patients,” she said. “And I love letting people know that someone cares about them.”

Crista Lanning’s journey to becoming a nurse began after she decided she didn’t want to make veterinarian science her life’s work.

She knew she liked science, specifically medicine and anatomy, and that she liked working with people and wanted an active career.

“I researched everything from physical therapy to physician’s assistant to medical research,” she said. “Then I stumbled across nursing. I had never known the role of the nurse before. But as I continued to discover all of the roles and responsibilities of the nurse, I found that nursing was exactly what I wanted to do.”

Next month, she will celebrate her fifth year of being a registered nurse.

She now works in the moderate acute adult care unit, which is a step-down unit from the ICU. She also is trained to work with intensive care unit patients including those with COVID-19.

Lanning said that experience has been much different than what she thought it would be.

“When news broke of the outbreak in Wuhan, China, I had originally thought it would be similar to several strands of influenza that we have already been treating, and thought that China’s dense population was the reason for the increasing speed of the virus,” she said.

But it became apparent, quickly, that COVID-19 was something completely different.

“The transmission rate was remarkably fast and the speed at which the virus could completely debilitate an individual was astonishing,” she said.

The moderate acute adult care unit was the first COVID-19 care unit in Jackson County and Lanning helped take care of patients ranging from medical-surgical care to intensive care including intubating patients and caring for those on ventilators.

“Taking care of a patient with the possible diagnosis of COVID-19 was like taking care of a ticking time bomb,” she said. “At any point, a patient could deteriorate rapidly, within hours, and go from talking to their family on the phone in the morning to requiring mechanical ventilation that afternoon.”

There was no good research or information as to what specific medications and treatments were best for COVID-19 patients and hospitals were receiving multiple and varying information on what personal protective equipment nurses and staff should wear.

“Many of us are quite used to the risk of infectious diseases and how to prevent the spread of them, but the realization that this devastating virus could be so contagious that we may not be able to prevent our loved ones from contracting it because of us was something very hard to deal with,” she said.

Lanning doesn’t want everyone to become fearful of being outside, but she does hope the public is learning something from this virus about the importance of proper hand washing and covering one’s nose and mouth when sneezing and coughing.

“Every year, thousands of lives are lost to contagious diseases that could have been prevented,” she said. “As cliche as it may sound, let your smile be contagious and not your hands.”

But COVID-19 has not changed Lanning’s love for her career.

“Nursing is by no means a glamorous, prestigious or high-paying job,” she said. “However, there is nothing like working hard for your patients and with your patients and to watch them improve. We get to be the one profession in healthcare that has the most time and hands-on experience with patients.”