Months have passed since UT alumna and physician assistant Courtney White last saw her family, fiancé, and most of her friends in Tennessee.
Her monthly flights back to Knoxville from New York City, where she lives alone on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, are a thing of the past. She canceled her beach trip to Charleston, South Carolina—meant to serve as her bachelorette weekend and time away from the demands of 12-hour shifts taking care of the sick and dying in ICU units at two New York City hospitals—for fear of infecting those closest to her or bringing COVID-19 back to patients already vulnerable to contracting the virus.
The only date left to address on her calendar—the last reminder of what life looked like before the pandemic—was her June wedding. With her dress in an unopened box on her apartment floor, White and her fiancé postponed until September, hoping by then they can be with the people they love once again.
“Getting married is about celebration and community,” White says. “Right now, everything feels the opposite.”
Most Americans have watched spring and summer plans crumble. They face the feelings of anxiety and isolation at home, where social distance policies dictate people are safest as COVID-19 spreads across the nation.
But for White and others who have chosen careers as nurses, doctors, and PAs in hospitals, clinics, and assisted-living facilities, their reality is different.
“We’re all afraid and anxious,” White says. “But I can’t go to the place in my mind where I lose hope. I’ve got a job to do.”
At home, medical workers like White may face the same isolation as the rest of the country. Then they put on their scrubs and their masks and move to the front lines, facing the coronavirus head-on every day in Knoxville, Nashville, Miami, Denver, New York City, and cities across the United States.
“This is why we went into health care—to help people,” says White, who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in kinesiology in 2015 before completing a physician assistant program at Lincoln Memorial University.
“More than ever, this feels like my calling,” White says. “This is what I was trained to do. It’s what Volunteers do. We step up and we serve our communities.”
While New York has been ground zero for COVID-19 in the United States, the virus has impacted the lives and routines of health care professionals across the country, including nearly every county in Tennessee.
In Maryville, Jennifer Winbigler and her colleagues in internal medicine are among the first contacts for patients admitted to Blount Memorial Hospital with COVID-19 symptoms.
Winbigler, a hospitalist who earned a chemical engineering degree at UT before attending medical school at UT Health Science Center in Memphis, is accustomed to dealing with contagious illnesses. With the dangers posed by the novel coronavirus, she must fall back on her years of training and experience. Every time a COVID-19 test she’s ordered comes back negative she knows she may have risked exposing her patients to the virus while in her care.
“That’s our jobs as diagnosticians and physicians,” Winbigler says. “All the time, we’re considering risk versus benefit and laying it out for our patients.”
At home there is no reprieve from hard decisions for Winbigler, who is married and has three sons: an eight-year-old, a five-year-old, and 10 month-old Ayres, who was named for the building where she took classes as an undergrad and was later engaged to her husband, a professor in UTHSC’s College of Pharmacy. While her children once met her in the driveway after her shifts, they now wait inside as she goes through a new routine. Her hair cover, stethoscope, and cloth mask come off inside the car, and her shoes stay outside, not to be touched until her next shift. Once inside the door, she removes any clothes she’s worn that day, drops them in the laundry, and showers. Only after all this can she finally hug her children.
“I realize I’m putting my family at risk because of my job,” Winbigler says. “But this is what I signed up for. To the boys, I’m like a soldier going to the front line to fight a war.”
Ashley Cleveland and Katie Crawford are both registered nurses and students on the family and nurse practitioner track in the College of Nursing’s Doctor of Nursing Practice program.
As DNP students, they focus on evidence-based practice, based in interdisciplinary research from nursing, public health, and related fields. Currently, Cleveland leads a quality improvement project aimed at increasing attendance to diabetes self-management education and support services for patients with Type 2 Diabetes, while Crawford implements an English as a Second Language health literacy curriculum for refugee and immigrant communities throughout Knox County. A partnership between Crawford, Bridge Refugee Services, Cedar Springs Presbyterian Church, and the Knox County Health Department, the program aims to increase access to health care for traditionally underserved populations.
On top of their scholarly work, they’re also treating COVID-19 patients: Cleveland in the medical ICU at Vanderbilt University Medical Center and Crawford in critical care at Parkwest Medical Center in Knoxville.
As a member of the education committee within her unit, Crawford provides input for contingency scenarios, like what to do if supplies of personal protective equipment dwindle, and helps disseminate this information to her team. Breaking down complex medical data into digestible chunks is a large part of her work, and she uses that skill to also comfort patients who have limited visitation and experience little physical contact outside of their care teams.
Crawford does the same even for patients discharged from the hospital without testing positive for COVID-19.
“If you’ve been in the hospital, you could be immunocompromised,” Crawford says. “Wash your hands. Wear a mask if you absolutely have to go out. This virus is very easily transmitted—a little droplet particle in your mouth, nose, or eyes will get you sick. Staying at home is really the best thing to do.”
Cleveland, the daughter of an ICU nurse, volunteered to be on the COVID-19 list at Vanderbilt. When she arrives for a shift, she is assigned to specific areas of the hospital where virus patients are being treated.
“I work with the sickest of the sick,” Cleveland says. “If they need to be on a ventilator, they’re going to be with me.”
Like White, who has watched otherwise young, healthy colleagues in New York fall sick with same virus they’re treating, Cleveland sees patients with no medical histories on ventilators. She treats people whose lungs simply cannot handle fighting the virus.
For patients sedated and on ventilators she goes through the same routine as she does for every other patient: she enters their room, tells them what day it is, explains the situation, and talks to them kindly, as if they could respond to her.
“Even though it does scare me, I feel like I was made to do this,” Cleveland says. “My patients deserve a good nurse during such a scary time. I do my job with a smile.”
Jenna Duerst, a RN in the post-anesthesia care unit at University of Miami Medical Center, explains the nurse’s mentality as a motto she learned while at UT: “To do what nobody else will do, in a way that nobody else can, in spite of all we go through—that is to be a nurse.”
“For a patient who has lost hope or for a scared family member at their bedside, whether it’s for two minutes or 12 hours, a nurse has the ability to be a light in their day,” says Duerst, a 2017 accelerated BSN program graduate.
While White, Winbigler, Cleveland, Crawford, Duerst and thousands of others serve bravely in the fight against COVID-19, communities have responded in support. Their hospitals have received donations. Local businesses and churches have sewn masks. In the drive-thru line on her way home from work, Winbigler is greeted with a free coffee and a “thank you for your service,” like she’s really the soldier her sons believe her to be.
In August, Winbigler will be a part of a phase I vaccine trial. She is working with a group of colleagues at the Volunteer Research Group at UT Medical Center on treatment and prevention studies. She will do anything she can to stop COVID-19 from taking lives in Maryville, Knoxville, or wherever people are sick and hurting.
“It really is an honor to do what I’m doing,” Winbigler says. “Community, giving back, family—I learned that all at UT.”
Brian Canever (865-974-0937, firstname.lastname@example.org)
This story is part of the University of Tennessee’s 225th anniversary year. Volunteers light the way for others across Tennessee and throughout the world.