Clarksville, TN – As the coronavirus pandemic rages across the world, thousands of Austin Peay State University School of Nursing graduates are in the trenches helping patients battle the disease.
One recent graduate, Hunter Burkhart, is a registered nurse at Vanderbilt University Medical Center’s medical intensive care unit.
We spoke to Burkhart soon after he finished his fourth overnight shift in five days at the hospital working with coronavirus and other ICU patients.
He described how his life has changed at work and at home, and he wanted to reiterate one point: Everyday people – you and me – are the ones on the front lines during this crisis.
“The public is actually on the front lines of this pandemic. Since this virus is being rapidly spread throughout the community, it’s important that we keep up with social distancing,” Burkhart said. “I saw in an article that the hospitals and all the employees working there are the last line of defense for this virus, and I couldn’t agree more with that statement.”
Here’s the interview, edited to enhance clarity and reduce length:
Can you describe what you do?
We’re responsible for giving patients their medications, doing routine assessments on them to make sure that everything’s intact from respiratory status to neuro status. When our patients are on the ventilator, we monitor vital signs and tell the doctors and respiratory therapists when we have to go up on the oxygen on the ventilators or when they have an acute drop in oxygen saturation.
How has coronavirus affected your work life?
We have a no-visitor policy right now as do most, if not all, hospitals. It can be truly heartbreaking and anxiety-inducing for both patients and family members. We do offer Zoom with families, but I think we can all agree that it isn’t the same as having family in the room.
Things have been pretty hectic there. We had a lot of policy changes, especially early on, where we were trying to figure out what was happening. Learning how we should wear our protective equipment, this is how we should wear it, we need this mask over that mask, we need face shields versus not needing face shields.
That has pretty much plateaued and we have a system in place now where we need to have surgical masks on and if there are any aerosolizing procedures, that’s when we would wear the N95 masks. And we need to always have eye protection on when we go into corona-positive patients’ rooms.
We’re learning a lot about new procedures on how to position our patients. We started proning patients more often now, which is where we put them on their stomachs versus leaving them on their backs. And we’ve seen some success with that so far. It just helps with lung expansion.
How has the virus affected your home life?
I’m kind of stuck at home. I don’t want to go visit my family because I have older parents and older grandparents, and I really don’t want them to get sick just because we’ve seen that older patients that have contracted it have a lot more complications than somebody my age or 30 or 40 years old. I’m just staying here in Nashville and not visiting my family in Clarksville as often. For Easter I didn’t really get to see them. I probably won’t for Father’s Day. That’s been a little rough, just not being able to see them.
What has been your biggest challenge?
Seeing all these updates and changes that COVID-19 has caused at the hospital and seeing new signs and symptoms in patients who are coming in. We’ll have some patients have signs and symptoms A, B and C and then someone else comes in with X, Y and Z, and they’re both positive for COVID-19 Coronavirus. I think Austin Peay State University, having such a broad spectrum in nursing, taught us how to look at bigger-picture things. I’m able to step back from the situation and try to put all the pieces together.
What message do you have for Austin Peay’s nursing students?
Just be ready because you never know when something like this can happen. I definitely didn’t think when I graduated, just over a year ago, that we’d be in the middle of a pandemic and definitely didn’t think it would be something of this scale. It’s a learning process, and we’re all trying to figure it out. Sometimes you have to dive in headfirst and adapt on a day-to-day level. You have to be flexible and adapt to the work environment, and, most importantly, you have to protect yourself.
What message do you have for the public?
Stay home. We’re starting to see a decline in the patients that are coming in, which means that all this social distancing we’ve been doing has been working. If we start opening everything up too fast, I feel like it’s just going to come back and we’d have to start over from the very beginning.
To Learn More
For more about Austin Peay State University’s School of Nursing, go to www.apsu.edu/news/april-2020-coronavirus-nursing-students.php.