View this Coronavirus Story

Story Title: Blogging the Pandemic with students

Contributor Name: Jane C. Nesmith
Created: April 23, 2020 at 9:33 AM

Story: What are your experiences teaching & learning in the time of coronavirus?

Note: I’m having my writing class, Creative Nonfiction and American Culture, write short multimedia essays--blog posts--about “Life in a Pandemic.” I’m also writing a blog-- “Journal of a Plague Year.” Here is a blog post I wrote about a guest speaker we had at a Zoom meeting. After this meeting, students did interviews with people they know about their life during the pandemic.

Writing Students Hear Stories of Covid-19 

An emergency room triage nurse came to my nonfiction writing class yesterday, dressed in PPE--a mask, headband, glasses, and gloves.

OK, there was no emergency. And really, no classroom either. My class was meeting online via Zoom, and a friend of mine who's a triage nurse at St. Luke's Hospital Emergency Room, Teresa Williams, joined us for the online meeting.

That's Teresa on the right with the headband and mask

Teresa was there to talk with my students about working in the Emergency Room during the pandemic, how she's handling the influx of Covid-19 patients, how the hospital is responding, what it's like working under the pressure of a fast-spreading disease.

Why have a nurse visit a writing class? My writing students are spending the last four weeks of the semester--these weeks of online instruction due to the pandemic--writing about life during the pandemic. We've been reading examples of narrative nonfiction written about life during various crises, including the 1918 Influenza epidemic and the Dust Bowl of the 1930s.

Besides writing about their own experiences with this particular crisis, they are talking with others whose lives have been affected by the pandemic. I was so grateful that Teresa agreed to talk with all of us.

Once she shed her face mask and gloves, Teresa affirmed what we already knew: that Covid-19 cases are still on the rise here in Cedar Rapids. There have been 280 cases reported in Linn County as of today. 

Of course, that reported number is just the number of people who are sick enough to go someplace like a hospital and get tested. There are many more people who probably have Covid-19, but haven't been tested--they've called their doctors, described the symptoms, and been told to quarantine themselves at home unless their symptoms get worse.

Over at the St. Luke's Hospital Emergency Room, there has been a steady stream of patients with Covid-19. Not an unmanageable surge--yet--but plenty of sick people. "I probably get exposed to Covid 5 to 10 times a day," Teresa said.

The entrance to St. Luke's Emergency Room, photo from St. Luke’s website.

We wanted to know what it was like to interact with people who were sick enough that they came into the hospital for treatment. Teresa told us that it was pretty clear when someone was sick enough to be admitted to the hospital.

"Normally for an adult, the respiratory rate is about 20 breaths per minute," Teresa said. "These patients are coming in with a rate of 40 or 50 per minute. It's like they just ran a race and can't catch their breath."

While Teresa's mask, and gloves seemed like good protection, once a Covid-19 patient has been diagnosed, nurses who work with that patient have to don what Teresa called "the full outfit," PPE protective gear that covers the entire body, like an astronaut's suit.

"It has to be put on in a certain order," Teresa told us. "It takes two people to put it on."

The full PPE outfit includes a full coverall, gloves, a hood, and a helmet with a clear plastic face shield. There is a tube running down from the helmet that connects to an oxygen supply so that the nurse or doctor isn't breathing in the virus expelled by the patient. "It's bulky and heavy," Teresa pointed out. But that PPE is essential when working closely with very sick patients--taking blood tests, administering oxygen, taking other vital signs.

Teresa told us that those very ill patients are sent to the 5th floor of the hospital--a floor that's been prepared to receive Covid-19 patients. There, health care workers wear full PPE all day.

This week, that floor is "pretty much full," Teresa says, and the hospital is considering whether to open rooms on another floor.

The students and I have had our lives upended by this pandemic. Instead of meeting in person for classes and being part of that residential college experience, we are connecting via screens and email, struggling with isolation, and worrying about the future. But for most of us, we can stay away from sources of infection and do our work--whether studying or teaching--from home.

Not so for Teresa and the other health care workers. As Teresa put it, they are like firefighters who run towards the burning building while everyone else flees.

I'm so grateful for their bravery and steadfastness, and for Teresa's willingness to share a bit of her story with us.

Keywords/Tags: college, writing, blog

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