COVID-19 has brought many unprecedented changes to our lives. The “new normal” uses words like social distancing, asymptomatic and face covering. When coronavirus arrived many people across the nation wondered what would happen or began examining the latest statistics. The fight was already on, the bell rang, and members of the Long Blue Line were on the front line.
Emalee Gullick goes the extra mile. The Tremont native graduated from Mississippi University for Women with her BSN degree in 2016 and recently completed her master’s degree. Immediately after graduating with her undergraduate degree, she began working at North Mississippi Medical Center as a registered nurse in general surgery. When COVID-19 arrived in early 2020, nonessential medical procedures stopped. Simultaneously, Gullick was looking to make a difference.
“This is a job that you thought you would always have job security. Then, they did not need everybody. I just didn't feel like I was doing as much as I could be doing,” said Gullick.
She began searching and contacting travel agencies for opportunities to contract or assist with the COVID-19 relief. Ultimately, she discovered an opportunity through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
For 50 days straight, Gullick was stationed in the Queens, New York, community. Each morning she would catch a bus at 6 that shuttled healthcare workers to Elmhurst Hospital Center. On her first day, she received a half-day crash course orientation. With six to seven patients assigned to her daily, Gullick had arrived to New York a week prior to the peak of COVID-19. As her tenure continued, the critical condition of her patients increased.
Gullick said, “The first couple of weeks were a whirlwind. There was not time for breaks or sitting down, charting, none of that. We get there, get our assignments, prioritize which patient you need to see first, who gets the most time and just try and get their meds to them.”
She would step back onto the bus around 7 p.m. and arrive at the hotel near 8:30 p.m. Gullick would then shower, eat and sleep. The next day she would start all over again.
Gullick said she didn’t have time to be tired, exhausted or even worried about her health. She actually surprised herself at the speed at which the time passed.
There were days she would arrive and treat and talk to patients only to return the next day to learn that they passed during the night.
“It was hard to see, and it was so frustrating to me. I got mad and angry at how it all played out, and I probably shouldn't be that way. You can't let that affect you in a negative way. So, accept it for what it is and move on. Let it make you better. If I got anything out of being up there it's just the fact that I learned that I'm not in control of things,” explained Gullick.
“I felt like I had a duty and a call. Those were the two key factors that got me there in the first place. I'm a believer that God gave me the opportunity to go. So, I went.”
According to Gullick, toward the end of her time in New York, things were beginning to get back to normal. She felt a sense of accomplishment and that her job to assist the New York and Queens community was done. On May 18, she arrived home.
Gullick managed to have a couple days off to breathe some fresh air. She said New York was different because everything was closed. Gullick managed to run the Brooklyn Bridge and Central Park. She ran three to four miles on her rest day.
From Meridian to Memphis to New York, a career in nursing has taken Matt Naylor from the South to the North. A 2011 graduate of The W’s BSN program, Naylor now resides at the New York-Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center in the Cardiothoracic Intensive Care Unit. What he describes as “ground zero” for COVID-19, the ICU converted all but one room into coronavirus treatment rooms and all operating rooms to coronavirus treatment rooms.
All rooms filled up quickly. By April, 2,800 COVID-19 patients had been admitted with over 750 critical care patients at the Columbia University Medical Center.
Daily, Naylor would suit up in his personal protective equipment for his 12- sometimes 16-hour shift in the intensive care unit. Normally each nurse would care for two patients on average, but that ratio had more than doubled. Travel nurses came to assist.
Transport ventilators became personal ventilators and dialysis machines were rationed. At times, masks for nurses became sparse.
He received threats from patients’ family members and was punched in the face by a delirious patient. Naylor wore a black eye home that day.
“It’s not for the fame or money. It sounds cliché, but it’s cliché in truth. We want to help people. Purpose motivates. I want to make a difference. What I do has worth,” said Naylor.
With the bad, comes the good. Every day at 7 p.m. New Yorkers would hang out the windows or stand on the fire escapes to yell, bang pots and pans and use any other noise-making instruments to thank medical professionals.
In the middle of the chaos, the unknown and exhaustion, both Gullick and Naylor knew they were prepared. Gullick said because of her education she was able to stay calm and make correct decisions.
“The W is one of the best programs not just in the state, but in the South. I felt prepared the second I graduated, but I didn’t realize how prepared I was for this critical situation,” said Gullick.
Naylor reflected back to nursing school and the tests where all answers were correct, but one was the most correct. The discipline, fundamentals, professionalism and work ethic he learned at The W is still with him.
Until 2020, it was the most rigorous thing he had ever done.
Iheshia Koonce, recently graduated from The W’s RN-to-BSN Advanced Placement Option, during the 2020 Virtual Summer Commencement Ceremony. She is also a recipient of the 2020 Spirit of Nursing Award.
The award is presented to a nursing student who has embraced their spirit and committed to the care, treatment and preservation of others in mind, body and soul.
“Iheshia worked through the entire fall semester with her son getting very sick, and dealing with pneumonia and respiratory failure. Iheshia sat in the critical care waiting room and did her homework,” said Karen George, coordinator RN to BSN Advanced Placement Option. “She never gave up! She never complained and she never asked for an extension. She believed her son would live and he did.”
The California native and Saltillo resident has worked as an ICU nurse at North Mississippi Medical-Tupelo during the COVID-19 pandemic while also being enrolled at The W.
Koonce has witnessed many changes due to coronavirus, but the loss of freedom to offer personal care has impacted her the most.
“Being totally garbed up and a mask kind of takes away from the personalization. They [patients] can kind of see your face. You are more hidden and little more muffled. They have no idea what you look like, beyond the face shield and the N95 mask on top of that,” described Koonce.
To be noticeable and personable to her patients, Koonce created a button with a snapshot of her face that is viewable through her transparent protective clothing.
Like many nurses across the nation, Koonce has rotated through the COVID unit of the hospital. She is constantly striving to protect herself and others around her.
“You just have to be diligent with your handwashing, you have to be diligent with not touching your face and wearing your mask. You just have to be so much more proactive with little things we used to take for granted,” said Koonce.
While we may feel invincible at times in our life, she strongly encourages everyone to take the necessary steps to protect loved ones and ourselves.
Koonce’s grandmother recently turned 90. It has been heartbreaking and a struggle for Koonce not to visit her during the pandemic. She has dropped groceries and cleaning supplies at the front steps and held long-distance conversations but admitted it wasn’t the same. Koonce is unfortunately familiar with the consequences of contracting the virus and the effects it can have on one’s health.
Not all has been bad for the Tupelo nurse. When the first wave hit, the hospital treated everyone to a snow cone day, cheerleaders stood outside of the employee entrance another day and local churches held signs and applauded one time.
"It was very humbling for me, and it was very touching to know that our work is not just in vain, so to speak. I feel really blessed and honored that the Lord chose me in this profession to be of service for Him and to serve His people. I consider that a wonderful blessing,” said Koonce.
Since graduating, Koonce has elected to take a much-needed break. In the future, she hopes to return to The W to earn her master’s degree with the goal of one day teaching nursing.
To all the medical professionals across the nation and the world, we at The W say, “thank you.” Your hard work and commitment to your profession has allowed us to persevere. The healing and care you have delivered to our lives and the lives of our families and community members is invaluable.