ORONO, Maine — Kennedy Gerow, 22, of Carmel was in her final semester of nursing school at the University of Maine in March 2020. Though she had completed the bulk of her clinicals — supervised hands-on medical training for students — Gerow considered herself more of a nursing student than an actual nurse.
As the coronavirus crept its way toward American shores, murmurs throughout the nursing department signaled to final-year nursing students that they may be plucked to join the fight in area hospitals.
Gerow was terrified.
Lauren Ismail, 20, a second-year nursing student living in Orono, was in the early days of her very first clinical rotation. Students had to wear masks, but things were otherwise normal. There were more restrictions the second week, and by the third, clinicals were moved entirely online.
Heidi Placella, 20, also a second-year nursing student at the time who goes to the University of Connecticut and is living in Storrs, Connecticut, realized that nurses were going to play a large role in fighting the coronavirus before it had reached the United States. In fact, one of her nursing professors had altered a course to cover the coronavirus starting in February 2020.
The three women all grew up in Glenburn. They and other nursing school students and recent graduates faced many of the same risks of exposure to the deadly coronavirus as their more seasoned counterparts, yet their experiences were different.
Gerow’s nursing degree would be fast-tracked along with many of her classmates’ — she graduated on April 28, 2020, instead of in May. She didn’t get to have the pinning ceremony that she had always imagined, where her older brother — also a nurse and the reason she pursued nursing — would pin her.
By June, after receiving a CNA certification based on completed clinical hours, Ismail would be working on a med-surgical floor at a Bangor hospital. She was living with her parents and caring for her grandmother who suffers from COPD. She worried about the exposure risk she brought home to them after every shift. Even still, she continued to work. Quitting wasn’t an option.
Gerow was thrust into her nursing career full of doubt regarding potential gaps in training that could have resulted from her unprecedented final semester.
“I was really scared because I didn’t know what it was going to mean,” Gerow said. “I didn’t feel ready to be a nurse in a pandemic.”
She nearly lost a patient during her first “rapid response.” Gerow was one month out of orientation and the patient was having a heart attack. As Gerow manually squeezed the intravenous bag of pain medication, the patient begged her not to let them die.
She has heard this a few times, and it can bring her close to tears. Though she doesn’t want to make a promise she can’t guarantee, sometimes she will tell them, “you are right where you need to be, and we are going to do everything we can to help you.”
On a particularly difficult day, when Gerow’s floor was being used as a partial COVID-19 unit, she remembers walking to her car in tears and considering leaving the bedside. She has chosen to stay for now.
“Nursing is a team sport.” Gerow said. Though she hardly knows the faces of some of her coworkers, the bond between them is tangible. What they go through together brings them together.
Gerow received her first dose of the Pfizer vaccine on Dec. 18, 2020. She was one of the first nurses on her floor to receive a vaccine, and after working on the front lines for nine grueling months of the pandemic, it had been long awaited.
She felt nervous at first — the vaccine was brand new — but she understood it as her duty to get it.
At the time she was working with vulnerable patients on a Cardiac/COVID-19 Unit at a Bangor hospital. Gerow told her boss when she started to experience muscle aches. They attributed the aches to the vaccine, but monitored her symptoms and test results. She continued with her shifts as normal.
Four days later on Dec. 21, after working closely with patients throughout a nine-hour shift, Gerow tested positive for the coronavirus. She was sent for a second test at a drive-thru testing clinic. She sat in her car and cried.
Gerow’s family is immunocompromised. Her mother is a cancer survivor, her father has a pacemaker, and her 89-year-old grandfather was also living with them at the time. Not to mention the patients that she had been interacting with were vulnerable.
She said she thought she had been exposed by a patient who had recently tested positive.
Her mother brought her food, her aunt brought Christmas decorations, and she FaceTimed with her fiance on Christmas Eve. It was the saddest Christmas of her life. She remembers thinking, “This is how my COVID patients felt.” Isolated. Alone.
This spring, Placella is working through her clinical hours at a hospital near her college in Connecticut. It has been tough. The risk of contracting the coronavirus at a hospital, or unknowingly bringing it in, is always on Placella’s mind.
“[Having nursing students work shifts during a pandemic] is uncharted territory for students, instructors and hospital staff alike,” she said.
All three women have already faced death head on. Gerow nearly lost her father when she was a senior in high school, so she understands the loss of control and fear that her patients and their families experience. She remembers her father explaining to her when she was a child that death is a part of life.
“[Death] can be a release of peace for those who are suffering and who are ready to go,” Gerow said.
She feels honored to care for people in their final moments, or even after they die.
Gerow, Ismail and Placella are now fully vaccinated. They’re relieved, for themselves and for their families and patients who they can now keep that much safer.
All three went into nursing to help people and to be around people. “I’ve always been a fixer,” Gerow smiled.
Placella said she feels emboldened in her pursuit of nursing. Witnessing the resilience of nurses this year as the demands they face skyrocket inspires her. She feels better prepared.
This year, Ismail realized she can handle a lot more than she thought she could. They all have.
Kate Fogg of Orono is a third-year journalism student at University of Maine.