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In the COVID-19 hotspot of New Jersey, nursing students can experience an unexpected supplement to their education. As a junior at Seton Hall, Cara Underwood has been a nursing assistant since December. When she started work on the cardiac unit at St. Peter’s University Hospital, life and work took place in a different world to the one she is in today.

At the end of February, though, Underwood’s floor was converted to a COVID-19 step-down unit for patients who had emerged from the ICU or whose symptoms were not acute enough to require intensive care. Since then, she has seen enormous changes. As the pandemic progressed, her workweek expanded from 24 hours to 40 hours, and her responsibilities have grown at an accelerated rate. With the progression of the virus, everything seems to be changing. As Cara explains, “No one on my floor has ever died during my shift and I worked a lot before this. Normally… they end up in the ICU and the ICU is where you see the deaths. But we’re just seeing it happen so quickly and also the ICU is so full that we’re starting to get those more severe cases on my floor.”

The rapid spread of the virus is providing the nursing junior with a crash course: “We’re really seeing the rapid deterioration in these older folks, you know, 60 and older where we’re just unable to keep their oxygen saturation up.” And working outside the ICU is no longer insulating her from encounters with code blues. Underwood remarks, “Over the weekend we had two deaths, which, like I said, I’d never seen one before as a nursing student. I mean, you have two back to back. It was unreal.”

She is also facing at firsthand the shortage of PPE, and a fellow nurse and her family tested positive for the virus and required hospitalization. Of the lack of PPE, Cara says, “It just seems unreal how that’s supposed to be protective for us. It’s scary. But we’re working with it. I mean, they say this is what we signed up for. I’m not sure if we signed up to be unprotected while we’re in the workplace, but we try to do our best.”

However, this trial by fire has not succeeded in dampening her passion for nursing: “I’ve always known I wanted to help people. And the truth is when, when I’m in those rooms and I’m helping these people I know that it’s what I’m supposed to do…. Before I worked in the hospital, [nursing] was this thing that I was working towards, you know? Getting to be a nurse and caring for people. And now that I’m on the battlefield, so to speak, it’s more of a reality. It’s not the perfect nurse life that I may have envisioned but I know I’m still supposed to be here.”

For more on Cara Underwood’s experience at St. Peter’s Hospital during the pandemic, see her interview with the Seatonian.

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Koren Thomas
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