TSU nursing graduates on the front line in the fight against COVID-19, roles highlighted during National Nurses Week

(l-r) TSU nursing graduate Akelah Earl and Nursing supervisor, Meghan Lambert-Agnew.

Tennessee State University nursing school graduates are among the thousands of healthcare workers around the country responding to the influx of patients needing medical care because of the COVID-19 pandemic. They’re conducting screenings, communicating to the families, and above all, caring for the critically ill.

TSU nursing graduate Akelah Earl is one of those on the front line. She is a registered nurse at the University of Chicago Medical Center and works 13 to 14 hour shifts – sometimes for six nights straight. She specializes in labor and delivery. Since the outbreak, Earl has been caring for mothers in labor who test positive for COVID-19.

“It has been very difficult,” says the 2015 graduate of the TSU BSN program. “Due to this pandemic, they (mothers) are not allowed to have the support that they may normally have.”

The Chicago native says adding to the difficulty is having to work with limited resources to meet the growing demand.

“Working with limited PPE (personal protective equipment) has been very hard but we’re getting through it,” Earl says.

According to the Chicago Tribune, the city continues to report the highest rate of coronavirus cases and deaths in Illinois, with a number of healthcare workers among the victims.

Closer to home in rural Bolivar, Tennessee, Meghan Lambert-Agnew is the nursing supervisor at the Hardeman County Health Department.  The TSU School of Nursing graduate is responsible for conducting all COVID-19 screening and testing for the entire county. Lambert-Agnew echoes the same sentiments as Earl regarding limited supplies to fight this unprecedented medical crisis.

“My patients include those with  private doctors that can’t afford to pay for the test, coupled with those we see on public assistance, and it puts a strain on supplies when we don’t have enough to meet the demands,” says the Tennessee native.

“There is no turning anyone away. Once you run out of testing or screening supplies, who knows when you will get more.  My commitment is to provide the best care and education awareness to the people I see every day despite my working circumstances.”

Donned in a full length gown, face shield, N-95 respiratory mask, with a surgical mask on top of that and gloves, Lambert-Agnew adds she’s had to be resourceful going through this pandemic and that TSU prepared her with the skills to deal with the challenges.

Dr. Maria Revell, interim executive director of the TSU School of Nursing says students are educated to function in a world of change.

“They are equipped to exhibit compassion in the face of adversity while administering safe patient-centered care,” says Dr. Revell.

“As we endure the most unprecedented time in the lives of many, our graduates meet the challenge to administer physiological and psychological care and comfort.”

The university is currently accepting application for the fall into the traditional BSN program. Program Director Dr. Pinky Noble-Britton says the TSU School of Nursing has a rich tradition of producing nurses who adapt seamlessly into the nursing workforce and are true life-long learners.

“Our program provides essential classroom and clinical experiences that equip our nursing students to care for a diverse clientele and collaborate with all members of the health care team,” states Dr. Noble-Britton.

At Atlanta’s Grady Memorial Hospital, a key intake center for the growing coronavirus spread in Georgia, Ashlee N. Everette, another graduate of the TSU BNS program, is on the front line. She is a charge nurse in the NICU, or newborn intensive care unit at Grady. She says coping with changes in regulation in patient care since the pandemic has been the most difficult. As a supervisor, she wants to do more, but she’s limited.

“Because of the impact of COVID-19, we have terminated all visitation rights to parents, and we have to wear N-95 masks during patient care,” says Everett, an Atlanta native, who also graduated in 2015.

“Parents are only allowed to see their infants through an iPhone FaceTime call. The father of the newborn is not allowed into the delivery room, and it pains me, but we have to do it to prevent the spread.”

As the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases accelerates in the United States, unsung heroes on the front lines of the health care response have found themselves in an unprecedented position.

“As a nurse, not being able to have control of situations, having to watch chaos spiral with no real guidance, understanding, and predictability is one of the hardest things for any nurse to cope with,” adds Everett.

Amy Oaks-Smith, an OB float nurse at St. Thomas Midtown Hospital in Nashville, is married with four children ages 1-13. Her husband, Carlos, a firefighter, is also an EMT, or emergency medical technician, who works 24-hour shifts. Amy works 12-hour shifts. But they find a way to balance work and family.

“Many times, when he is coming in, I am going out,” says Amy. “But our work is our passion, so we go out and make sure we are helping where we can.”

As a nurse in the NICU, Amy says she is not directly involved with COVID-19 work, but they must make sure everyone coming in her unit is properly screened, temperature checked, and adequately “gowned and gloved.”

“I am the nurse that takes care of babies when they are born – look them over to make sure they are OK and breathing and acting the way they should,” says Amy, also a member of the TSU Class of 2015.

All of these TSU graduate believe their success would not have been possible without the preparation they received from TSU.

“TSU made me well prepared to become a nurse,” says Earl, who is pursuing her master’s degree at Chamberlain University. “One thing each professor I encountered taught me was to be fearless and compassionate no matter what I am facing.”

Everett adds, “When we took our oaths and were pinned as nurses in 2015, we would have never predicted this pandemic and its impact in healthcare. But TSU prepared me well and I am grateful.”

Oaks-Smith agrees.

“At TSU, our clinicals really set us up for success.”

Dr. Revell adds, “The BSN program at TSU is one steeped in tradition and pride. We provide a connection to various cultures and offer a diverse student experience. We facilitate acquisition of the skillset and education needed for success in the nursing profession.”

The University kicked-off the first day of National Nurses Week by delivering small potted plants to over two thousand nurses and other healthcare workers at Nashville General Hospital, St. Thomas West, Matthew Walker Health Center and Select Specialty. Flowers will be delivered to Vanderbilt on Friday. The project to recognize frontline healthcare workers was spearheaded by the College of Agriculture in partnership with Optimara Horticulture.

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