egan Marooney sat in the window of her New York City apartment every night at 7 p.m. watching fellow New Yorkers join together in a round of applause to support essential health care workers. The movement, dubbed “Clap Because We Care,” caught on around the country—from Los Angeles to New York City to the city Boston College students call home, people clapped to support nurses and doctors on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic.
But Marooney, BC ’18, doesn’t just clap in support: She serves as a nurse at The Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhattan, supporting patients battling COVID-19, and is one of the many BC graduates treating coronavirus patients across the country.
The World Health Organization first categorized the coronavirus outbreak as a pandemic on March 11. As the outbreak spread and cases began to rise, many hospitals were forced to turn specialized units into COVID-specific units—and since then, BC graduates serving as nurses were forced to deal firsthand with the coronavirus pandemic.
Joshua Sogolow, BC ’17, currently works at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston. The hospital’s surgical ICU unit was turned into a COVID-19 ICU—effectively making Sogolow a COVID-19 ICU nurse. The unit consists mainly of COVID-positive patients or those undergoing testing to determine whether or not they are COVID positive, Sogolow said. The complexity of COVID-19 has made Sogolow’s work as a nurse difficult, he said.
“It’s definitely been tough at work,” Sogolow said. “[COVID-19 is] not a simple disease. … There’s clearly not a cure. Our treatments aren’t really something that we necessarily know is going to work for everyone, and a lot of these patients can decompensate quickly.”
As a nurse dedicated to healing patients with the coronavirus, Sogolow noted the added layer of stress that comes along with treating COVID-19, namely the risk to workers’ own health. While standard protective procedures for Sogolow’s unit once included just wearing masks and protective glasses to treat patients, protective practices evolved into wearing additional personal equipment, such as contact precaution gowns and protective headwear, Sogolow said.
People who are immunocompromised are further at risk for severe illness related to the coronavirus. This list includes those who have had or have cancer, HIV, genetic immune deficiencies, and other conditions, according to the CDC. Among those who are at a higher risk is Sogolow, who has diabetes.
While he is young and healthy, he said, Sogolow is tasked with treating patients of a contagious disease and managing his own health.
“I’ve seen people my age, healthier people than me, that have done poorly, required ventilators,” Sogolow said. “And, you know … it’s concerning, just the risk of how contagious this is.”
Marooney, who began working at Mount Sinai in October of 2018, worked as a nurse in the oncology unit until March—when her unit was also made into a COVID unit.
“We’re kind of like COVID [and] oncology right now because all of the cancer patients who have contracted COVID come to our unit,” Marooney said.
Many of the patients Marooney is treating for coronavirus she knows well, having been a nurse for many of them during oncology treatments. Due to the pandemic, hospitals are not allowing visitors, meaning many of Marooney’s patients die without their family by their side, she said—an experience that Marooney acknowledged as personally trying for her.
“Ultimately, the hardest part about it is just seeing people have to die by themselves,” Marooney said. “And then having to facilitate end-of-life FaceTimes and kind of being the hands and the eyes and the ears of family members during that time.”
In one case at Mount Sinai, a patient with leukemia who had also contracted COVID-19 refused a ventilator.
“Down in the ER, [the patient] had seen somebody get intubated and put on a ventilator right in front of her,” Marooney said. “After seeing that, [the patient] decided she does not want to be on a ventilator, she does not want to be intubated.”
Because she was surrounded by coronavirus patients constantly, Marooney was unable to see her family for support. A Long Island native, Marooney previously was able to visit her family often—but her exposure to COVID-19 at work has left her waiting for the next time she is able to see her loved ones.
“I really haven’t been able to go home,” Marooney said. “So I just miss my family, and I worry about them. And I wish that, you know, we had an end date to all of this.”
Recent graduate Abby Basler, BC ’20, is a nursing assistant at Massachusetts General Hospital. Basler, who is also working in a COVID unit, forfeited a graduation celebration with her family to stay in Boston. While she still has to take the NCLEX exam to become a registered nurse, Basler has been supporting front-line nurses and doctors while on the front lines herself.
After BC students were sent home for the semester due to the coronavirus pandemic, Basler packed her things to move to an off-campus apartment, dedicated to helping as much as possible.
“Being kind of isolated is difficult,” Basler said. “But … the biggest emotion I felt I think is like pride and gratitude for the front-line workers.”
Basler, who balanced shifts as a nursing assistant as well as schoolwork during the school year, primarily cares for patients in ways that on-duty nurses and doctors can’t. In one instance, Basler was tasked with taking care of an eldery World War II veteran with coronavirus symptoms. With his family unable to visit, Basler was his primary caretaker. Between washing and making the patient comfortable, Basler would hold the patient’s hand, she said. Still, the patient declined quickly, and Basler remembers that day that he died.
“Because my floor is an oncology floor, we do really good end-of-life care,” Basler said. “So at least I felt good … that I got to do some care for him like in the days before he passed. I knew he was appreciative of that.”
But in between the sad moments, there were happier ones too. Basler saw the hospital’s first patient who had been intubated get sent home to his family—front-line workers clapping as he was wheeled out of the hospital.
“To see someone go from on the verge of death to going home with his family, that was pretty cool,” Basler said.
utside of the hospital, Lindsey Kelly, BC ’20, is putting her nursing school knowledge to use in the age of coronavirus by helping out students of the Campus School. The Campus School works to provide special education to children with multiple disabilities. Kelly, needing to finish her clinical hours in order to graduate from the Connell School of Nursing, worked providing home-care nursing to Campus School students—many of whom are at high risk for COVID-19, Kelly said.
“Because the Campus School was closed due to COVID,” Kelly said, “their parents were still pretty overwhelmed because they usually have a lot of nursing care at the Campus School.”
Kelly is among the front-line workers who contracted the coronavirus herself. Before nursing children of the Campus School, Kelly worked at Brigham and Women’s Hospital—not returning because she tested positive for COVID-19. It was only after receiving a negative test result that she was able to go back to work with Campus School students.
While the profession comes with risks, especially during a pandemic, nursing assistants such as Basler and Kelly have come into a renewed sense of appreciation and pride for those in their future profession.
As she watched a team of nurses at Mass General adapt to a new virus, Basler felt gratitude for those on the front lines. As a nursing assistant in the oncology unit, Basler watched oncology nurses adapt to fighting a virus they knew nothing about.
“Watching the adaptability and the support of the team on the floor has been really empowering and exciting for me to enter into a profession like that,” Basler said.
Despite all of the risks and the seemingly ever-changing nature of treatment, Marooney believes she’s right where she belongs: whether she’s clapping along with fellow New Yorkers or in the hospital.
“If there’s anyone that needs to go onto the front lines, fight this virus, and take care of these people and expose themselves every day, it should be somebody like me,” Marooney said. “From looking at it in that perspective, I don’t really feel scared anymore. I feel more like this is what I’m supposed to be doing.”