At the forefront of the COVID-19 pandemic, health care professionals put their lives on the line
What started as a faraway concern in the early months of 2020 soon became a reality – first in coastal states in the United States, then eventually in Texas and El Paso as the COVID-19 virus continued its deadly march. Like the rest of the world, people in our city began to shelter at home, and students no longer stepped into classrooms. We stayed in touch virtually and our trips outside were reduced to essentials. “Essential” became a word we associated with the crisis – it describes those who stand on the front lines, including health care professionals, first responders, grocery store workers and so many more who keep our city running.
As our daily, stay-at-home rituals became the new normal, students and faculty at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center El Paso learned and taught virtually. Nursing students stood toe-to-toe with the virus as they treated patients during clinical rotations, and medical students offered their time and skills to assist the El Paso Department of Public Health with contact tracing.
Traditional events, like Match Day and commencement, were held online. Graduating students saw their names and photos on computer screens as their families applauded and shared their excitement virtually. It’s a moment in our university’s history we will never forget.
At TTUHSC El Paso, we often say we’re training the next generation of health care professionals. The COVID-19 pandemic has shown us not only that we need this next generation, but that their dedication, passion and willingness to step up – no matter what – is how the world, and the Borderland, will demonstrate resilience during challenging times.
For the second time in less than a year, local nurses and nursing students found themselves on the front lines during a critical moment in El Paso’s history.
On Aug. 3, 2019, many worked tirelessly following a mass shooting at an El Paso Walmart. A few months after, as COVID-19 began to sweep across the nation and into the El Paso area, nurses all around the city – dressed head-to-toe in the best personal protective equipment (PPE) they could get – faced an uphill battle.
“In a pandemic, you’re attacking an enemy that could approach you from any angle,” said Stephanie Woods, Ph.D., R.N., dean of the Gayle Greve Hunt School of Nursing at TTUHSC El Paso. “Nurses and nursing students were learning on the job, trying to figure out how to protect themselves and others. They did what they always do, which is a little bit like acting as a traffic cop – you’re looking in four directions at once and trying to decide how to keep the flow going.”
In March, following a week-long spring break, students from the Hunt School of Nursing continued their education via remote online learning. The challenge, Woods said, was getting students into their clinical rotations.
“The faculty and I worked diligently to keep students in clinical experiences,” she said. “That opportunity changed minute by minute; but what better time for us to help them grow and learn than during a global pandemic?”
Heather Scarbrough, a student at the Hunt School of Nursing, worked in the Labor and Delivery department of a local hospital, which provided a unique experience as hospital policies changed throughout the pandemic.
“As a student nurse, I was able to spend quality time with my laboring patients and support them in ways a busy labor nurse isn’t always able to provide,” Scarbrough said. “We had a strict no-visitor policy, so some of those moms-to-be were missing loved ones during a pivotal moment in their lives. I tried to fill that void for them the best I could, all while knowing I could’ve contracted COVID-19.”
Like her peers, Scarbrough’s focus remained on supporting the community, especially in a time of great need. “I’ve acknowledged the fact that in my career, I’ll potentially be exposed to several pathogens; nonetheless, I stand ready to serve my community and patients in any way I can,” she said.
As the number of COVID-19 cases climbed in the Sun City, health care professionals faced the harsh reality that they could unintentionally expose and infect their loved ones. Many sacrificed time with their children and families by isolating in local hotels following long shifts in hospitals and clinics.
In April, TTUHSC El Paso partnered with Esperanto Developments, a local hotel management company, to provide free hotel rooms where nursing students could safely rest and isolate after completing clinical rotations. For students like Jenny Moya, this act of kindness goes far beyond the duration of the pandemic – her ability to continue serving the community meant she would stay on track with her degree program while protecting her loved ones.
“It gave me peace of mind that I was keeping my family safe while doing what I’m passionate about, which is caring for others. This allowed me to continue my journey as a nursing student and push forward to the summer semester,” Moya said.
That resounding commitment to their education and future careers became a defining moment for the Hunt School of Nursing, and Woods said student response to the pandemic, and all its unexpected changes, was overwhelmingly positive.
“When you ask students why they want to be a nurse, most of them will tell you that it’s because they want to help people,” Woods said. “I’m just so proud of them.”
TTUHSC El Paso was built on a foundation of philanthropy – it’s this part of our university’s identity that has always kept us tied to the local community. While our students and faculty work year-round with the men, women and children of the Borderland, TTUHSC El Paso supporters generously give to keep our mission alive. Even in times of hardship, local businesses and organizations continued to give throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, turning the tables and making sure our health care heroes were the ones being cared for.
As reports of PPE shortages across the nation made headlines, students, employees and organizations jumped into action by using available resources to ensure physicians and nurses in our Texas Tech Physicians of El Paso clinics and partner hospitals had what they needed to safely do their jobs.
In a show of support for the Red Raider family, the Texas Tech University College of Architecture in El Paso used 3D printing technology to create and donate 500 face shields to help protect those on the front lines.
Together with her husband, Carola La-Follette, a member of the TTUHSC El Paso family, 3D-printed head bands used to hold face shields and donated them to TTP El Paso health care professionals.
To keep health care professionals energized and fed, several organizations in the region stepped forward by providing free meals, coffee and sweet treats to boost morale.
Chick-fil-A North Hills and Hope City Community Church came together to provide lunch for employees at the TTP El Paso Alberta and Transmountain clinics as they continued working to provide patient care.
“We just want everybody to feel loved and appreciated,” said Christy Ramirez, Chick-fil-A community marketing director. “Those health care workers who are out there screening – they’re sacrificing so much just by being there and we wanted to give back in just a small way to show them that we care.”
In May, El Paso Locomotive FC – along with their mascot, Ozzy the bat – helped provide even more Chick-fil-A meals to TTP El Paso clinics. Together with Chick-fil-A North Hills and Chick-fil-A Cielo Vista Mall, the soccer team visited with our sports medicine physicians and orthopaedic surgeons while delivering lunch.
To provide physicians and nurses with a cup of coffee, nonprofit organization InfraGard supplied TTP El Paso clinics with 21 large canisters of coffee and coffee creamer. And what better than a delicious cookie to accompany a cup of coffee; Girl Scouts of the Desert Southwest donated cookies to TTUHSC El Paso and our friends at University Medical Center of El Paso and El Paso Children’s Hospital.
Due to shelter-in-place orders, the Girl Scouts’ council was left with 72,000 boxes of cookies, which were purchased by supporters and donated directly back for distribution to military, hospitals, fire stations, police stations, EMTs and senior centers.
With help from TTUHSC El Paso’s President’s Development Council member and President of National Restaurant Supply Bruce Gulbas, his wife Jackie, and TTUHSC El Paso Vice President of Institutional Advancement Andrea Tawney, Ph.D., 3,600 boxes of cookies were delivered to deserving health care professionals and the Texas Tech Police Department.
Support for the Unexpected
Undoubtedly, the impact of COVID-19 reached far beyond overwhelmed hospital systems. At home and in their personal lives, students began to feel the financial burden that came along with economic consequences of the pandemic.
Many TTUHSC El Paso students rely heavily on service industry jobs to augment their income as they complete their degree programs. As restaurants and other businesses in the city temporarily closed their doors, students were left questioning how they would pay for rent, groceries and daily necessities.
In April, the Wells Fargo Foundation gifted TTUHSC El Paso with a generous grant in support of students from the Hunt School of Nursing as they faced unforeseen challenges and expenses due to the pandemic. TTUHSC El Paso leveraged the funds to assist nursing students through partnerships with Project ARRIBA and Workforce Solutions Borderplex.
To further ease financial hardship due to COVID-19, TTUHSC El Paso created the Student Frontline Emergency Fund, which provides relief for current and future needs of students who served, and are still serving, in local hospitals during clinical rotations.
Upon learning of student hardship, community partners – including AT&T, GECU, El Paso Electric, JPMorgan Chase, BBVA and the Albertsons Companies Foundation – came to their aid by making generous contributions to the emergency fund.
These contributions, which extend a lifeline to vulnerable students, not only provide funds for rent, mortgage, medical and educational expenses, but ensure students graduate on time and enter the workforce where they are needed now more than ever.
As the need for food items among students increased, local businesses and members of the community stepped up and donated to the TTUHSC El Paso RaiderAid Food Pantry.
Fellow essential workers at both Food City Supermarkets and Vista Markets donated nonperishable goods and other staples to the student pantry. Additionally, Paul and Suzanne Dipp, owners of Economy Cash & Carry, and Stephen Peterson, owner of 3Pete Logistics, LLC, gifted the pantry with generous contributions.
Health Care Heroes
For nurses and physicians, standing at the front lines is just another part of their everyday lives. From the moment they begin their journey in health care, their commitments are focused on healing, no matter the situation.
“I’ve always thought it was a beautiful hero or heroine story to talk about health care in the time of crisis,” Woods said. “Health care professionals go about their business as usual, taking care of patients while minimizing thoughts of themselves. If these noble people are going to go in and take care of these patients, it’s up to us to do everything in our power to keep them protected.”
COVID-19 and the impact it’s had around the world has changed our lives in ways we never expected. At the forefront of uncertainty, health care professionals continued going to work, saving lives and standing bedside to ease fears, making patients feel less alone. It’s said that not all heroes wear capes – at TTUHSC El Paso, our heroes wear scrubs.