(WAUSAU) “I’ve seen more deaths in the last 10 months than any 21-year-old should.”
This statement was made by Veronica Pieters, one of the many University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point health science students who are using their education to make a difference on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic. They are working in hospitals, laboratories and clinics in their home communities to help where needed.
Many of these students, earning degrees in nursing, clinical laboratory science and other health-related majors, are working full-time while taking full-time classes. According to Rebecca Sommer, assistant dean of the School of Health Sciences and Wellness, students are working more hours since much of their coursework is online.
“These students are adding immensely to our communities by supporting our health care systems,” she said.
“Recently I have been feeling like I live a double life – as a young college student preparing to graduate and as a frontline health care worker fighting a pandemic,” said Pieters, a clinical laboratory science major from Butler, Wis., who works with patients as a phlebotomist and is also a lab assistant at St. Michael’s Hospital in Stevens Point.
One of Pieters’ daily challenges with COVID-19 is reducing the stress of patients and those afraid to come into the hospital. Pieters dons a disposable gown, gloves, face shield and N95 mask or certified respirator when she goes into a room to draw blood. “It’s hard to help them feel calm while I’m dressed like an alien.”
The protective equipment is vital and also makes communication with COVID-19 patients difficult, she said. And while she should minimize time in the room to lower risk of exposure, she takes time with patients who have questions or feel isolated and want to talk, she said.
“I saw a great quote for health care workers,” said Pieters. “‘Be alert, not anxious.’ I have been living by that. We are realistic and know there are risks, but we try not be stressed about it. We try to stay positive for the sake of our patients. We are as invested in their care and results as physicians and nurses who work with them more directly.”
Rhiley Maguire, Mosinee, a third-generation nurse following in the footsteps of her mother and grandmother, is a registered nurse at Aspirus Wausau Hospital. She is currently studying online at UW-Stevens Point to earn her bachelor’s degree in nursing, with hopes to one day become a physician.
“Taking classes while working as a nurse helps me reaffirm my skills and apply them more directly in the field. I’m able to connect what I know to what I am practicing,” she said. Maguire currently works in the intensive care unit and had been working in intermediate care, so she has experience caring for critically ill and recovering COVID-19 patients.
“It has been hard for our patients to not have loved ones with them,” she said. “It’s important to find other ways to communicate, like setting up a video call or having us hold a phone up for them. It helps if they hear a voice and know that their family cares – they don’t feel as isolated.”
For Maguire, the best part of her job is being there for her patients. “I like having that bedside interaction and seeing them progress, knowing that our interventions are helping – and then seeing them able to leave and become themselves again.”
Neillsville native Adam Hartz is working in patient care support and screening at Marshfield Clinic Neillsville Center. A non-traditional student, he changed his major from history to clinical laboratory science so he could use his love for lab work to help people.
“I’m the first point of contact when people come to the clinic,” he said. “I screen everyone to make sure that our staff and our patients are protected.” Among the challenges of the job are not allowing family to go in with patients unless they are minors or have disabilities.
Hartz hopes that those coming to his clinic or any other health care facility understand why the protocols are in place. “We are trying to do what’s best for them – for patients and for their families. As a single-story facility, we can even offer patients to speak to their family members outside of their window. We are doing all we can to accommodate them.”
For these students, working during the pandemic has reaffirmed their decisions to work in health care.
“I enjoy working with patients and know this is the right path for me,” said Hartz. His classes, such as medical terminology, have helped him screen and assist patients. Last semester he earned a 4.0 GPA for the first time since attending high school. He hopes to one day manage a hospital laboratory.
“Going to school full time and working full time is a lot of work, but I’m up to the challenge,” said Pieters. “I’m looking forward to my clinical experience, graduating and applying what I’ve learned.”
While this hands-on experience is valuable for students, Sommer is concerned that many are stretched thin. To help, instructors are being as flexible as possible, she said, extending due dates and working with students to successfully complete courses. The university also offers various services and resources for students to help during the pandemic.
“The demands placed on these students are incredible,” she said. “We are advising students that they must care for themselves, too.”