UO nurses show their courage in battle against COVID-19

Collage of UO health care workers

As they have been for all front-line workers, the days have been long and stressful for University Health Services nurses since the arrival of the coronavirus in Oregon almost a year ago.

The nurses providing care to students on the University of Oregon campus have operated under the constant threat of being exposed to COVID-19. They’ve sacrificed seeing friends or family to carry out their important work.

And most taxing of all, they’ve worked nonstop to help care for and soothe the virus-driven fears of the students they see each day.

It’s grueling and sometimes thankless but also gratifying work: treating students sick with the virus, donning bulky, spacesuit-like protective gear, doing triage with those fearful they’ve been infected and helping assuage the concerns of family members.

“It’s not just physical; it’s emotional, it’s mental,” said Shannon Hingley, a nurse on the triage team at University Health Services. “You come home to your family, and you don’t want to spread it to them. There are times where I’m tired and I can’t do one more thing. And there are other times where I try to be positive: ‘Yes, this is hard, but I’m still alive. I’m still OK. I have a job.’ And those are the types of things that help me push through, along with my co-workers, who are amazing. We are a family.”

While COVID-19 vaccinations have begun across the nation, and these nurses will be among the first vaccinated in Oregon, it will be months before vaccines are administered to the broad public. For these nurses, that means more uncertainty and more apprehension, all of which take its toll.

“It is draining, especially emotionally,” said Megan Lohr, a nurse who works in the viral clinic. “There’s an element of helplessness to the whole situation that I feel. For me, the medicine is to try to stay grounded in the conscientiousness and the kindness and the grace that I’ve been seeing around all day, even in the midst of all this unprecedentedness.”

Added triage nurse Nancy Cox, “The number of patients we’ve been seeing ... with me, it’s the stress of trying to do everything I can.  There’s only so much we can do, but you’re wanting to do more.”

Cox and her colleagues say they endure it all, knowing they are making a difference for the community and the students.

“It feels like they’re our kids a lot of the time,” Hingley said, “and that we’re trying to educate them and take care of them. Let them know we hear them and that we’re here for them. It’s very rewarding to be able to help them as they’re reaching out to us.”

“It’s not just anxiety from our students but from their family members and extended family members as well,” said triage nurse Cari Casarez. “And I can say that even as a nurse, that’s my own family and parents and grandparents.”

From her post as University Health Services executive director, Debra Beck sees her staff’s dedication firsthand every day.

“Despite the fear and anxiety that they will become ill themselves, they have worked as a team to provide the very best care for our students,” Beck said.

She added that the Health Services team created procedures to assure everyone’s safety so they could provide services to those with COVID-19 symptoms along with providing traditional wellness care in a safe manner. 

“I am very proud of them,” Beck said. “Their work and dedication to help our students who are ill and vulnerable has been unwavering. Their passion to provide expert care to students has been more evident than ever during this pandemic.”

Beck and the nurses also emphasize to students that they are not alone in this. The University Health Services phone is staffed 24 hours a day, as is Counseling Services’ crisis line, to help at any time.

While the staff wants to see everyone follow the COVID-19 health guidelines, they also want younger people to understand that even though they might not suffer the virus’ most severe symptoms, the virus could do untold amounts of damage, so they need to do their part in slowing its spread.

“It might mean that you’re not going to get that sick, which is great, but what you really, really need to think about is how easily it spreads,” said Allie Heaman, a nurse on the triage squad. “Your mild case could cause an outbreak of 100 people in Lane County. And of those 100 people, some of them could die. That’s the biggest thing.”

That doesn’t include the impact on people’s livelihoods should an outbreak require businesses to be shut down. That is why they say it is so important that everyone remain vigilant even with vaccines providing a light at the end of the long tunnel.

For Lohr, the effort and diligence she’s seen from members of the campus community in adhering to the guidelines in the months since the pandemic began stands out for her.

“If we can keep this up a little bit longer,” Lohr said, “until we’re able to flatten the curve and come up with other ways to mitigate the pandemic, it’s one of the most important things we can do at a time in our lives that we might never see again in terms of this opportunity to care for each other and ourselves at the same time.”

Despite any fatigue or worries, the nurses press on without hesitation, driven by their commitment to the students.

“This is what nurses do,” Heaman said. “We care for people. We’re there for people when they’re at their most vulnerable, so it does come as second nature to just be there for them.”

—By Jim Murez, University Communications