Before her father died, Amelia Parrish told him that she had been accepted to nursing school.
“That was really the last thing I was able to tell him,” she said.
Her father, a dentist, smiled. He and her mother had always taught Amelia to help people. Her father set an example by treating patients who couldn’t always pay.
He passed away from a terminal illness a few days after she shared her news, in November 2018.
Neither Amelia nor her father could have imagined then what nursing school would be like for her and 89 other nursing students graduating in the spring class of 2021 from Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College. But school has prepared them for exams to become registered nurses.
COVID-19 arrived in Mississippi one year ago, upending their studies. Some students also juggled hospital jobs on COVID units, learning firsthand about the importance of personal protective equipment, acting as family for patients in isolation, suffering the loss of loved ones to the virus, and persevering through their own bouts with the illness.
The graduating class was only a quarter of the way through their four semesters when Mississippi recorded its first coronavirus case on March 11, 2020. Online classes, sometimes while overseeing a child’s virtual school, was only one of the many challenges they faced.
“We never knew we would see something as significant as this is across the world — not only our state and nation but this world,” said Joan Hendrix, associate vice president of the School of Nursing and Health Professions at MGCCC.
“I think it has truly, it has strengthened them. Knowing I can do this in nursing school, which is already a rigorous program, if I can do this under these situations and circumstances, hey, I can do anything.”
Pandemic creates fear of the unknown
“Perseverance” best describes the past year for upcoming graduate Jacey Bayman. She did not know what to expect from the pandemic. She and her roommate panic-bought so much bottled water when the pandemic began that they still have not drunk it all.
While in school, she worked as a technician at a local hospital, where she has cared for COVID-19 patients. She did not know what to expect. But she watched as other nurses stepped up for an assignment that seemed particularly dangerous because so much was unknown about the virus.
“They just knew people needed our help and they were there to take care of them,” she said. “That inspired me.”
She was nervous about her N-95 mask fitting properly. She saw other nurses contract the coronavirus, then come back to the unit when they had recovered.
She saw some patients decline rapidly. They would be up and talking one day, on a respirator the next. She saw more than one patient die.
“It happens so fast,” Bayman said. “ . . . That is the hardest part, I think, knowing you did everything you are supposed to do and it still wasn’t good enough.”
Shifting to online classes
Bayman and her fellow students navigated big classroom changes during the pandemic. When they returned from break at the end of March 2020, classes shifted online.
The students say MGCCC did an excellent job upgrading technology and shifting to an online environment.
But it wasn’t easy. Some students said they learn better in person. And, the school had to get inventive to replicate hands-on training as best they could, becoming avatars for students placed in mock medical situations and asked how they would respond.
“When we went online, it was so difficult for me,” said student Sonja Page. “I’m not a good computer learner at all.”
She also had a 2-year-old in the house. When she was in a classroom, her mother took care of him. But when she was home, he wanted his mom’s attention, too. When he has a tantrum, she has to pause her online class.
Instead of going to school four days a week, the students attend a day of online classes from 8 a.m. to 5 or 6 p.m. They are now in their fourth and final semester of classes.
“It’s still something you have to adjust to,” Page said. “Once I graduate, I know I’m going to have to adjust to a lot of things. Right now, I’m just trying to take it one day at a time, trying to finish my last semester as strong as I can.
“… I feel like I’ve taken on so many challenges head on; I feel like any challenges I face in the nursing field, I’ll be able to handle it. I’ll know how to deal with them, and I’ll know how to deal with them efficiently and safely.”
COVID-19 solidifies nursing plans
Coronavirus has a way of distilling what is important.
Student Todd Smith works for a nurse staffing agency out of New Orleans. During COVID, he has been assigned to a nursing home, a jail and the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center in New Orleans, which was turned into a makeshift hospital for COVID patients for much of 2020.
He has always been drawn to mental health work. The pandemic only solidified his interest in working with psychotic patients and those with mental-health challenges.
At the convention center, he worked with a young female patient who was disoriented and did not grasp the logistics of the pandemic. She was agitated and suffered from panic attacks because she couldn’t go outside.
Instead of telling her, “No, you can’t go outside,” Smith decided to ask the woman what it was she wanted to do outside. She wanted to see her favorite flower, as it turned out, a daisy or a sunflower — Smith doesn’t remember which.
He told the ancillary staff, which he said was remarkable about fulfilling requests and brought in the flowers for her in no time.
“By the time she left,” he said, “she was walking around telling other people to put on their masks.”
“Mentally, we were able to put her mind in a different place while she convalesced.”
The experience reaffirmed Smith’s interest in mental health. He hopes to make a difference in the lives of his patients when he graduates and goes to work.
Nurses stand in as family
Student Lauren George experienced a new way of nursing while working during school as a technician at Singing River Hospital in Pascagoula.
“Death is an everyday thing working in a hospital, but with COVID I think the biggest thing that affected me was that you weren’t surrounded by family in the days leading up to your death,” George said. “A lot of these people died alone, or their family was there right at the end.”
George found she enjoyed keeping her patients connected to the outside world. She was working on Easter Sunday, the first holiday during the coronavirus. She was missing her family. The hardships of the pandemic hit her that day, she said.
She checked in on one of her COVID patients. “Could you just please help me get to church?” he asked. She found his church online and they watched the live-streamed Easter service on his phone.
“We had church in that hospital room,” George said.
When she started school, George had planned to work in a medical lab. But she shifted to nursing when she discovered how much she enjoyed working with patients. She has accepted a position as a nurse technician in Singing River’s ICU.
“I learned a lot by working in the hospital,” she said. “The nurses just took me under their wing and explained so many things to me. It really helped me with school, especially this semester. I understood things a whole lot better.”
Going to school and working through COVID-19 has taught George and the other students to adapt to a new way of learning and more intense medical settings.
“We had to rely on ourselves more than ever before,” George said. “It was just very different and very hard.”
COVID vaccines give students a lift
Many students feel that COVID-19 has forever changed health care.
For one thing, they expect masks will continue to be a standard precaution in medical settings.
“I feel like we all have realized how much masks actually protect us, and that’s not just against COVID,” student Page said. “It could be any virus that is airborne. “
“I will go outside and, if I feel wind hit my face, that’s foreign to me. I don’t feel protected without it on.”
They also believe telemedicine will continue to grow. It has been used more widely during the pandemic, when direct contact was not necessary, and has proven convenient for patients.
After all their struggles in 2020, the nursing students experienced a historic day in January, when they helped Singing River Health System with a COVID-19 vaccination clinic.
They rotated through all the vaccination stations, processing paperwork, giving shots and monitoring patients after inoculations.
Student Marie Dugger vaccinated her father, a doctor.
“I was kind of scared because, as a child, he used to give me injections,” she said. “It was fine. He said it didn’t hurt. It was definitely like the tables had turned, me giving him the shot instead of him giving me the shot.”
Student Bayman was so busy working and studying that she didn’t stop to think about how life-changing the pandemic had been until the vaccination clinic.
“I realized,” she said, “this is a moment in history.”
Amelia Parrish, who was careful about wearing a mask, managed to contract COVID-19 in January. She isolated but continued her studies, even though she had trouble breathing and at times felt like someone was standing on her chest.
Her response to the virus typified the attitude of this graduating class of nurses.
“My thing is, if you want something, you’re going to accomplish it at all costs,” she said. “It’s really about pushing through it.”
“Alright, you have COVID, what are you going to do about it?” she said. “I’m going to study. At the end of the day, I know what I want to become and I know that the only way to keep my head above water, especially with the social isolation, you have to keep pushing.”