As COVID-19 cases have swept across the United States, PCD alumni working in healthcare have been on the front lines of the pandemic. Jillian Cote '08, an ICU nurse at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, Allie Gnys '10, a traveling pediatric nurse working at Seattle Children's Hospital, and Peter Karmue '04, a psychiatric nurse at Butler Hospital in Providence, are three PCD alumni who have been donning personal protective equipment and working hard to help their patients throughout the pandemic. These three alumni recently took the time to share their stories.
When asked about working as a nurse during COVID-19, Cote says the time since the pandemic hit in February has been a "whirlwind of chaos, emotions, and unpredictability." Nurses Gnys and Karmue immediately call the experience "crazy."
"This is such a crazy time. I never imagined it would escalate so much," Gnys says. Her experience at Seattle Children's Hospital has been relatively smooth, however, with the hospital opening an entire unit just for COVID patients and staff working rapidly and effectively to flatten the curve. "Seattle Children's Hospital is doing an amazing job treating it," says Gnys. She has also had fewer COVID-19 patients than colleagues in other hospitals since the virus affects children less seriously than adults.
Karmue, who works in the inpatient detox and intensive care units at Butler Hospital, says "It's crazy. As a psych nurse, it's very tricky. It's hard taking care of COVID positive patients. Patients have to wear masks, and caring for them is difficult."
At Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, Cote says that the doctors, nurses, and respiratory therapists are "working as a team" and are doing everything that they can to provide the best patient care possible. ICU nurses at Brigham and Women's even volunteered to work in the COVID-19 units set up at the hospital, with Cote joining the volunteers working on the front lines.
For Cote, one of the most difficult parts of COVID-19 is the strict no visitor policy put in place to prevent further spread of the virus. With families unable to visit, COVID positive patients communicate with loved ones using iPads provided by the hospital. In some cases, these calls turned into final goodbyes and Cote was the only person able to be there at the end. "I feel grateful," Cote says, "that I could be that patient's 'person' in their most vulnerable state, and provide some sort of comfort."
A big part of Cote, Gnys, and Karmue's work these days is listening to, supporting, and educating patients in the face of the pandemic. "Everyone is so scared of the unknown," says Gnys. At Seattle Children's Hospital, "we're really reassuring the parents and the kids that we're doing everything we can to keep them safe. That's the most important part of the job right now."
This emphasis on patient care and education is part of what made Cote, Gnys, and Karmue feel called to nursing in the first place. Cote majored in neuroscience at Connecticut College before internships and weekend jobs alongside nurses made her realize that nursing was her true calling.
Gnys switched to a nursing degree part way through her time at Quinnipiac University and discovered her love for pediatric nursing at her first job out of college. "I really love peds," Gnys says. "I remember realizing at my first job that pediatric nursing is definitely what I needed to do with the rest of my life. "
Karmue, a refugee from Africa who came to the United States as a child, always wanted to work in healthcare. He earned a biology degree from the University of West Virginia, and then a nursing degree from Westmoreland County Community College. "I fell in love with nursing because I wanted to educate and help patients," Karmue says.
This dedication to their patients during COVID-19 is not without personal sacrifice, although all three alumni remain upbeat.
Cote has been unable to see her nieces and nephews, or even her parents, since February. She and fiancé David Rapoport (a fellow PCD alum, Class of 2006) also decided that they would have to postpone their long awaited wedding to next summer. Although it was hard to accept at the time, Cote says, in today's reality a postponed wedding seems like "a small problem."
Gnys, a traveling nurse who often moves to new locations, has also been unable to see her family in person—in her case, since last fall. "But it's okay because there's FaceTime," Gnys says. "So we're talking a lot, maybe even more often than before the pandemic."
Karmue, who lives with his wife and four young children, has the opposite problem. "Taking care of COVID-19 patients and coming home at the end of the day to my family is risky and very scary," he says. His youngest was born at the end of February, just as the pandemic was taking hold of the United States.
When asked about his children, however, Karmue's voice brightens. "They're seven, five, three, and four months old," he says, his smile becoming almost audible over the phone. "I am blessed, truly blessed to have them. I always try to look on the positive side, and through the grace of God, we've all been safe."