Surviving COVID: Nursing Students Become Patients
Since March 2020, when COVID-19 escalated into a pandemic, at least three Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) students at the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work contracted COVID-19 while juggling school, clinical placements and work as registered nurses. As news around the country highlights the pressures and risks health care workers face, these students have navigated the illness, their changing academic and professional responsibilities and decisions about their safety and the safety of others.
Two of the students contracted the virus through work; one while on a cross-country flight. All three were fortunate enough to only experience mild symptoms, and their greatest concern is that the general public is not seeking medical attention early enough for COVID-19 treatment, and avoiding routine medical care for other health issues.
MSN student Fabiola Tyson is co-owner of All Valley Urgent Care in El Centro, California. The center is one of only two in the community, servicing 175,000 people. According to Tyson, to date the center has treated approximately 2,500 patients with COVID-19, from babies to a 92 year-old, with no deaths and four brief hospitalizations. Tyson credits their success with early intervention.
In October, while accompanying her husband to Washington D.C., they both contracted the virus. Tyson said there was a man coughing throughout their flight to Washington, and within five days they tested positive.
Tyson, 35, experienced body aches for about four days, but never had any respiratory problems or fever. Upon testing positive, she immediately began the treatment regimen her husband, a physician, had been using on patients at their urgent care center. Several years older, Tyson’s husband experienced a slightly longer, but still mild illness. Her two children, 12 and six, also had mild cases and were treated with individualized care.
Another MSN student, Katherine Braun, contracted the virus in late April while working at an ambulatory surgical center. Initially she was scared because of everything she had been hearing about the virus, but she was also lucky enough to only experience mild symptoms. Braun, in her early 30s, felt incredibly tired and had a low-grade fever but only took vitamins including vitamin C, vitamin D, zinc, magnesium and Tylenol for her symptoms.
“I did not take medication other than Tylenol because I didn't feel sick,” she said. “I felt… it's a weird feeling, I wouldn't equate it to anything else I’ve felt. Between my scapula was painful. It's a scary feeling obviously because you hear about it, it's in your lungs, so I felt like when I breathed in, you could hear that I couldn't do that properly. I was coughing a little, I lost my voice… I was very tired. I remember vacuuming and going up the stairs, thinking 'I'm tired!’”
Her experience sharply contrasted with her experience with the flu, earlier in the year “Then, I was really, really, really sick,” she said. “I felt like a truck hit me. My head, it was a migraine type of feeling. It was horrible. I had fevers for weeks, really high - 105 one day. Just an absolutely horrible experience.”
In early March, MSN student Connie Smith (name has been changed to protect anonymity) contracted the virus from a patient to whom she was administering a vitamin IV at an outpatient health and wellness center. The patient talked about feeling exhausted, and having lost his sense of taste and smell. “This was before much was known about COVID symptoms and I thought, ‘That’s so interesting,” she said. "I’m a nursing masters student so I should look into what that could be!”
A few days later, Smith received an email from work telling her a staff member had tested positive for COVID. That night, she felt body aches, was very tired and had chills. By the next morning she had a fever. She immediately quarantined herself.
“I never had a cough or shortness of breath, thankfully,” Smith said. “Just body aches and really tired, mild sore throat and a headache. And then I realized I couldn't taste or smell.”
Smith, in her mid-20s, was surprised with her positive test result. She had only heard about the severity of COVID, and this felt more like a mild cold. She quarantined with her boyfriend, who never developed any symptoms and tested negative. She has asthma and was scared that it would progress into something life-threatening, but it never did.
Grateful her case was mild, Smith decided not to take any chances going forward. “I haven’t returned to work since March because COVID is happening still and nothing has really changed,” she said. “I don’t really want to risk myself getting infected again. So, I’m just waiting it out.”
Braun is concerned that the media coverage is keeping people away from getting important medical care like cancer screenings, cancer surgeries and emergency room care, and that will ultimately lead to more deaths. “People are staying home because they are scared of the ER,” Braun said.
Braun stressed the importance of staying healthy, physically and mentally, in order to reduce the possible effects of COVID. “Walk outside, get fresh air, exercise, do some green juicing, try to do as much as you can of some plant-based diet, cut down on red meat - those are all things that cause inflammation in our bodies,” she said.
For Tyson, her experience has convinced her that early, individualized treatment for COVID, just like any other illness, is key. “We [at the urgent care center] see every patient,” she said. “If they get early treatment, they get better. If they wait two weeks to get treatment, sometimes it’s too late.. It’s not about politics; we’ve seen our patients get better.”
Smith urges everyone to get enough sleep to help boost the immune system, eat nutritious foods and make sure to take care of their mental health. “This can be a really hard time for a lot of people,” she said. “Reach out if you need anything and try to stay strong.”
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