Loyola nursing major Hanaa Barakat, 21, puts on her gown, gloves and an N95 mask, layering it with a second surgical mask and face shield. Her mouth feels constricted and she finds herself overwhelmed to the point of feeling like she can’t breathe.
She then walks into a COVID-19 positive patient’s room.
“Suddenly, I forget how uncomfortable I am,” Barakat said. “These patients are uncomfortable, these patients are scared, these patients are isolated from the whole world.”
Barakat is a phlebotomy technician at Advocate Lutheran General Hospital (1775 Dempster St.) where she works in each unit, including COVID-19 units, drawing blood and processing and preparing microbes for testing. Since March of last year, Barakat has had to endure the impacts of the pandemic on hospitals.
“In the beginning of the pandemic, we were left to reuse the same N95 [mask] through the unforeseen future,” Barakat said. “It brought a new appreciation for things that were perhaps taken for granted before: gloves, masks, gowns.”
Limited resources, such as masks, in healthcare facilities have elevated stress levels of many healthcare workers already maneuvering overwhelmed hospitals and record-breaking death counts.
Total COVID-19 deaths have reached just over 8,800 in Cook County as of Jan. 18, according to the Cook County Medical Examiner. As cases rise, the COVID-19 vaccine seems to be the last hope.
“I have seen more patients pass away from COVID than I care to admit,” said Will Senak, a Loyola senior and patient care technician.
Senak spends his time in the Northwestern Memorial Hospital’s COVID-19 General Clinic (251 E. Huron St.) helping patients use the bathroom, put on clothes, check their vitals and draw their blood. He said one of his most vivid memories while caring for COVID-19 patients was when a young woman experienced a sudden cardiac arrest and died.
“To have memories of talking to this patient fifteen minutes before her rapid and sudden clinical de-escalation made me appreciate the fragility of life and the importance of making smart decisions during this time,” Senak said.
Tragic cases such as the one Senak described show that COVID-19-related death is unlikely but not impossible for young people.
“You should not convince yourself that just because you are young, you are safe,” Senak said.
Risk of death isn’t the only severe consequence of contracting COVID-19. As the pandemic drags on, there have been increased reports of long-term effects. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) noted common long-term effects as cough, shortness of breath, fatigue, joint pain and chest pain.
“I’m more worried about the long term effects of COVID than I am of the vaccine,” said Jenna Norwood, a senior nursing major.
Norwood, who’s a COVID-19 screener at Illinois Masonic Medical Center (836 W. Wellington Ave.), received her first dose of the vaccine and encourages others to do so when it becomes available.
“I know it’s scary,” Norwood, 22, said. “But at the end of the day, I knew that what was being given to me was nothing different from what a lot of the other vaccines are.”
The CDC reports that like other vaccines, the COVID-19 vaccine supplies the body with defensive “memory” white blood cells that fight the virus if one were to contact it again.
According to the city of Chicago, vaccinations will be distributed locally first to frontline essential workers, long-term care facility residents, individuals aged 65 and above or those who have high-risk medical conditions. After prioritizing those at higher risk, distribution will enter Phase 2 which includes any individual aged 16 or above not previously recommended for the vaccination.
Healthcare officials are urging young people who fall into Phase 2 to get the vaccine when it comes available in hopes of achieving herd immunity — when a majority of the population becomes immune, preventing further spread of the virus.
“It says a lot that healthcare workers are all jumping in line and cannot wait to receive this vaccine,” said Hannah Fruscione, 21, a Loyola senior and NICU nurse assistant at Lurie Children’s Hospital (225 E. Chicago Ave.). “I chose to trust science, and I urge others to do the same.”
Until herd immunity is accomplished and in-person classes are safe enough to restart, Norwood said the Marcella Niehoff School of Nursing has implemented a hybrid bi-weekly clinical experience for students, where they learn different procedures and techniques through simulations conducted on Zoom.
“Our students have experienced clinicals with many uncertainties,” said Laura De La Pena, a School of Nursing (SON) clinical instructor. “The SON has set up virtual clinical experiences that enhance the learning outcomes for our students.”
Whether through online instruction or pre-COVID-19 in-person classes, many nursing students are seeing how their lessons are being applied in the real world.
“I understand what my nursing professors mean when they say that nursing is always changing,” Fruscione said. “This pandemic was something no one was prepared for. I have always taken my studies seriously, but the sense of responsibility to not only study, but master the material, is more evident than ever.”