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Contact: Alex Lyda

For immediate release — April 13, 2020

Recent Brookhaven College nursing graduate Anna Wenthold says it’s not a matter of “if” she gets COVID-19, it’s a matter of “when.”

Currently working at a hospital in Belleville, N.J., the Farmers Branch native volunteered two weeks ago to make the trek east to fulfill a 13-week traveling nurse contract she signed — knowing the risks even a healthy young woman in her 20s with no underlying health conditions might face. Wenthold put aside the risks, however, because the hazard pay was enough to “pay off nearly all my student loan debt and to start a nest egg for graduate school,” she says. “And the chance to be a part of history is exciting to me.”

Wenthold learned the nursing basics of critical thinking, clinical assessments, understanding different medications, interpreting clinical data, titrating prescribed medications and the importance of communicating with the entire health care team, all at Brookhaven. She also learned the wisdom of the Nightingale Pledge that calls for nurses to devote themselves to the “welfare of those committed to their care.”

So, when a call went out from hotspots around New York City for medical professionals to join the frontlines of the rapidly unfolding pandemic in the United States, Wenthold didn’t hesitate. In the five days since she has started, however, COVID-19 has already felled some fellow nurses and doctors who’ve been working around the disease longer than she has.

On a typical shift, she is one of eight nurses working in a 32-bed intensive care unit exclusively for COVID-19 patients, where a lack of personal protective equipment and staffing shortages have led providers to be overworked and fatigued. When Wenthold arrived, her new colleagues welcomed her with relief and were already headlong into doing what she is now: administering critical care for intubated patients staring down a ruthless and arbitrary disease.

“For people with COVID who need to be intubated [put on a ventilator], we’re basically offering supportive care,” Wenthold said recently after a long 15-hour shift. Instead of the ordinary load of two beds per shift, Wenthold has had to manage five beds — an unprecedented number that has forced the tough decisions that come with attending to more than one critically ill patient at a time.

“We’re having to determine what’s most important in the moment while putting the rest to the side,” she says. “It’s difficult because all of these patients are seriously ill. An empty IV under normal circumstances is cause for concern. In addition to running around keeping drips from running out, there are more codes [cardiac arrests, patients who have stopped breathing] than usual. The aspects of nursing that are getting overlooked at this time are things that contribute to the long-term health of the patient, such as skin assessments and keeping patients from developing pressure injuries.”

Wenthold’s routine involves one protective mask allocated per day, and enough gowns to change into a new one before seeing each patient — better than other hospitals in the area. She wears additional protective gear as well, including a facial shield. But they are bows and arrows against the lightning, she says.

“It [COVID] is everywhere,” Wenthold said. “And we as nurses must be careful not to inadvertently scratch our eyes or faces — a lapse that right after a shift could expose us, no matter how vigilant we are.”

Concerns and preoccupation about her personal well-being, however, have not stopped her from sharing the nursing knowledge she gained at Brookhaven with others on her hospital wing. Wenthold quickly discovered that the staff nurses at the hospital were excellent at “charting” — rapidly inputting health information into electronic medical records — but needed help in other areas that Wenthold had experienced at Brookhaven and now in her studies at UT Arlington, where she is pursuing her bachelor’s in nursing.

“I’m able to break down some basic titration concepts for the other nurses, and they are able to help me with literally everything else,” she says. “There is an incredible amount of teamwork and collaboration that happens in a novel situation like this. None of us were trained specifically in pandemic nursing, so all of us are having to learn on the go.”

Wenthold said the gravity of the pandemic, not just for the patients fighting for their lives but for the families who can’t be bedside with them, hit home recently when a family asked if she could facilitate a phone call with a COVID patient because they couldn’t see the patient in person. “I put the phone on speaker and went back to work, picking up my phone again on my next round,” she said. “The virus is so isolating for the patients.”

The message Wenthold wants to share with her friends and family — and anyone who will listen in Dallas — is that this pandemic is not going to end soon. Hospitals will soon need more health care workers to join the fight. “As more of my co-workers get sick, hospitals everywhere will need more trained professionals to beat this.”

The realization is not lost on Alex Stadthagen, the associate dean of health occupations and emergency medical services at Brookhaven, who helped to initially train Wenthold as an EMT, and has been helping to inventory and distribute donated medical equipment that is in short supply to combat COVID-19 locally.

“Students like Wenthold, an excellent student who cares about causes greater than herself, are the kind of people who are drawn to Brookhaven’s programs because they offer solid training for these health professionals who can then work anywhere and alongside the country’s best doctors,” Stadthagen said. “And it’s that kind of professional we are seeking to enroll every day in our EMS or Nursing programs.”

For her part, Wenthold’s entire new life in New Jersey revolves around the ICU.

Straight shifts led to two days off recently in which she admittedly just “vegged,” texted with her mother and recovered for another five days with a new batch of patients in a seemingly endless stream of human suffering.

“The sound of the disease, like mucus bubbling, is unlike anything I’ve ever heard through a stethoscope,” Wenthold said.

But because she is young and without underlying health issues, she thinks she’ll survive it if her lungs ever start sound that way, she says.

“I have every reason to believe that like the majority of people who contract COVID-19, I will have mild to moderate symptoms and move on.”

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