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Rio Alumni Serve on Front Lines of COVID Crisis

front line nurses smile together wearing ppe

Elizabeth Merklin, ‘21
Senior at Rio
Santa Rosa, CA

Right now, we are volunteering at the vaccine clinic on Saturdays because that is when I have time. Even though it is the Sabbath, I feel blessed and happy to help others in any way I can

I love getting the experience and building relationships too.

I help check people in and make sure they’re on the schedule, help check them out, and I work with my mom (a nurse) on transporting and taking care of the vaccines themselves. There are a lot of moving parts

Joyleen Mabika, ‘16
Public Health Officer
Oregon Health Authority

I help check people in and make sure they’re on the schedule, help check them out, and I work with my mom on transporting and taking care of the vaccines themselves. There are a lot of moving parts.

What do you do/did you do during the pandemic? 
I am a part of a Pandemic Response Team for the state of Oregon (Oregon Health Authority) and my main job title is “Case Investigator”. I call people who have just tested positive for COVID-19, tell them they tested positive, check in on how they are doing, and educate them on everything they need to know in order to stay home safely or get medical care if needed. I also connect them with local resources and support (housing/utility bill assistance, food, help running errands, behavioral health support) if they want it. This is a little different than the job of a contact tracer: they only contact people who have been exposed to COVID but haven’t been tested positive.

Pandemic response work is super flexible and always changing (as is COVID-19), so recently I’ve also been helping the state create a program that will assist elderly and/or disabled Oregonians to schedule vaccines and actually make it to their appointments. These are the people who experience the worst sickness from COVID and need the most help accessing vaccines.

Tell us about your career so far and how COVID impacted its trajectory.
Well, starting a career in public health during a global pandemic has definitely had its challenges. Luckily, I’ve been able to turn each challenge into an opportunity to learn more about different aspects of public health. Being a master’s student in the OHSU-PSU School of Public Health exposed me to the opportunity of joining this Pandemic Response Team, which has connected me with the Oregon Health Authority and more recently the Oregon Department of Human Services Aging and People with Disabilities (APD).

What are some skills you learned at Rio, or ways you grew that might have helped you in what you’re doing now.
While I was at Rio the biggest thing that helped me grow professionally was learning how to have a good work ethic. I remember working different jobs in the Ad Building and taking attendance for all the other student workers. Back then it was just a fun way to interact with friends, but I didn’t know how important those skills would be in my career! Showing up on time, paying attention to detail, and finding a way to have fun while doing all are skills that I bring into every job now. 

Has COVID changed or reoriented your professional passion/goals/focus?
COVID has definitely changed my passion/goals. My experience working on a pandemic response team has really shown me what equity means in public health. Equity means starting with the communities who need the most help first. If we try to simply help everyone “equally”, we would actually be making inequalities worse. Because of COVID, I know that no matter what I end up doing in the future, I want it to be equitable by starting with the people who need the most help.  

Miranda Watung, ‘15
Registered Nurse
Loma Linda, CA

Last year I started as a new graduate nurse at Loma Linda University Medical Center before the pandemic hit. With only four months of nursing experience under my belt, I was truly put to the test on my knowledge and skills when my unit became the hospital’s very first designated COVID unit. It was terrifying not knowing how this disease could not only affect my patients, but myself and my family. Every day my coworkers and I had to put on a brave face for our patients never knowing what the outcome would be. The most difficult part was having a patient during their final moments and not having the comfort of family being there with them. It was hard not to get emotional when final goodbyes were shared through a screen.

 As my unit stayed a COVID unit this past year, everyday was a journey as we were constantly learning of new developments and treatments. I have come to learn to never take each day for granted. I have seen and been through more than I could’ve imagined. I’ve been at the bedside holding the hand of a person who wasn’t going to make it, hearing cries of family members over the phone who couldn’t be there, seeing a young person all of a sudden crash without warning. All these moments made me appreciate every second of this life I have, and the purpose that I have on this earth. Through a lot of prayer and trust in God, I have made it through this past year healthy and my family safe and that is all I can ask for. 

Going into the medical field you have to expect the unexpected. No one could have predicted this pandemic would happen, and there was no way of preparing. The one thing I knew was that it wasn’t in my control. Through every high and low I felt God’s presence encouraging me and giving me strength to move forward. For those who are considering the medical field, my piece of advice is to never feel like you are going through things alone. Jeremiah 29:11 is an example of God’s promise for our future and how ultimately He is the only one who can predict it. Now I am currently a travel nurse in Boston, MA. Through covid I realized how flexible I can be in my field and with a lot of prayer I felt like I was led to this position. I have absolutely loved my time here so far and I hope to take assignments in many more states. It is with saying that everyday I am constantly growing in my field. But I know I can only thank God for giving my the opportunities that led me to where I am and the nurse I’ve become today.

Dr. Tino Mkorombindo, ‘13
Medical Student
University of Louisville

Today I had the opportunity to help execute one of the most direct impacts of our work through this Council. As a part of our commitment, we are going directly to the areas of Louisville where the COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately impacted our community. We were able to get 1000 people registered in advance (and more showed up) to receive their first dose of the vaccine. All morning, people sat in front of us and within our 2-5 minute interaction, they left with two things that they had not had before — their first dose of the vaccine, and hope for a better tomorrow.

Kim (Hershey) Holloway-Cook, ‘97
Medical Assistant
Colville Washington 
I have been doing COVID testing since March of 2020 and now I am assisting in giving out the vaccinations. Class of ‘97

Cheryl (Melodia) Losado, ‘89
I work in public health and did testing then moved into case investigations/ contact tracing and currently on vaccinations.

Jeffrey Alan Johnson, ‘85
Pharmacy Technician
El Dorado, CA

Pharmacy Tech with the Department of Veterans Affairs and have been on the “front lines” for many years.

Don Larsen, ‘77
Registered Nurse
Sacramento, CA

I am a registered nurse working for the Sutter Health information technology department. Our department over the past year has done a number of things to support Covid efforts. In March we reconfigured out Electronic health record to support Covid Surge ICU beds to meet the rising demand for ICU beds in Northern California. Again in July we continued this work to meet the need of that surge over the holidays. 

We were involved in the massive testing efforts again adjusting our system to allow for screening and testing documentation, and in the last couple of months our team has made it possible for Sutter Health to vaccinate 25,000 individuals a day if vaccine supply is available. Other efforts included rapid adoption of video visits where an in person consultation was not needed. This effort resulted in an increase from 100s/ month to over 10,000 video visits per month. Most of these efforts have been accomplished from our bedrooms, dinning rooms, garages, and other make shift offices as we were not allowed to be in our offices or on site unless absolutely required. While I was only a small part of this effort our team made it possible for our front line staff MDs, RNs, RTs, PTs, OTs, ST and other hospital staff to care for covid and non covid patients in the safest possible way.

Throughout my entire career as a nurse I have thrived on working collaboratively with my peers so I think the isolation from my peers and learning to collaborate with new tools. Most of the tools have been designed for offices that have strong network connections and were now being used on weak and over taxed networks since everyone was now trying to work or school remotely. Patience has become a major part of my day. I think the other big change is that during the projects we are working on we cannot directly interact with the front line staff as we assess their needs and requirements.

Nancy (Helm) Wilhelm Weeks, ‘76
Registered Nurse
Simi Valley, CA

I set up our hospital COVID Convalescent Plasma program, arranging for recovered COVID patients to donate plasma which was then given to our sickest patients in an attempt to transfer the antibodies from the recovered patient to critically ill patients.

Looking back over the past year, what has been the most meaningful part of this journey for you.  
Like most healthcare providers, when there is a medical crisis my instinct is to want to do something to help.  I spent nearly 20 years working in the Emergency Room but I have been away from clinical practice managing a clinical research program for the Cardiology program at my hospital. I had announced my intent to retire and had stepped down from the research program.  But, because COVID Convalescent Plasma had not yet received FDA approval, the program had to be run as a clinical trial for the first few months of the pandemic, so I was asked to postpone retirement and set up the program for our facility.  I was just happy to be able to have a way to contribute.

Can you tell me a little bit more about how you saw plasma impacting patients and how this technique changed over time?  
The COVID Convalescent Plasma (CCP) was one of the early therapies that were tried to treat the sickest COVID patients.  The thinking of the program was that we give the sickest patients plasma from patients who had recovered from COVID in an attempt to share their antibodies. We implemented our CCP program in April and Aug. 23, 2020 it received FDA Emergency Use Approval.  Up until then patients had to be enrolled in a clinical trial, have the treatment explained to them by their physician and sign a consent to receive an experimental therapeutic.  Its efficacy is still controversial, as with so many things with this disease.  I can’t say that we saw a rapid improvement in the patient who received CCP while I was over seeing it, but our mortality rate was fairly low. So I don’t feel that I can give a definitive answer as to the impact on patients.

What was one of your greatest challenges over the past year related to COVID? Not getting to retire and travel like I had planned. But in fairness I have to admit that I made the decision to stay on part time now. I am grateful to be healthy and have the ability to work when so many others have suffered so much this year.

What can you say to our current students who might be considering the medical field?
It is a rapidly changing field. It can be very fulfilling. It also has a lot of challenges and frustrations. Early in the pandemic I know many of my fellow nurses felt very vulnerable. It also has a lot of opportunities.  I noticed on your FB post the large variety of jobs held by just the nurses responding. That is a very big plus. I have worked in the ER (most of my career), ICU, Recovery Room, Home Health, Oncology, Case Management, Medical office, Clinical Research and Quality/Data Management. So it is fairly easy to find a fit or change when one area no longer is a fit.

Dr. Lorraine Williams-Tedor
Class of ‘76
San Antonio, TX

I am volunteering my services with the Medical Reserve Corps on behalf of the State of Texas Disaster Relief.  I am working alongside other doctors, nurses, ETs, and pharmacists either administering vaccines or drawing vaccine vials.  Originally held indoors, vaccines are now administered outdoors via drive through under tent cover while patrons remain in their vehicles.  It is working very efficiently, and I am very grateful for the fire and police officers who direct the lanes of traffic to keep us safe. 

We are currently working towards administering 40,000 vaccine doses recently received by San Antonio’s Metropolitan Health (our public health system in charge of this endeavor).  You can imagine the amount of help required for success for daily clinics being held from 8 am to 8pm.  They are long days on your feet, but I praise God for the health and stamina He has blessed me with.

I’ve attached a picture of the Alamodome which is where vaccines are now being given outdoors in the parking lots.  Indoors is still being used for offices, computer work, files, storage, etc. 

 After Rio, I attended La Sierra College and then Loma Linda University.  I married an Air Force Officer which is how I ended up in Texas.  Spanish is my first language which has come in handy living in Texas as well as during our public health vaccination events as there are many geriatric patients who speak limited or no English and they have been the first to be vaccinated after frontline workers.  The paperwork they receive is also in Spanish as well as English, so sometimes I get pulled from my tent spot to assist with language interpretation.

I have worked for various military hospitals for many years in the specialty of behavioral health medicine (following my husband) around. I work part-time now for no pay taking referrals from our pastor when needed and also serving as a consultant for Stephen Ministers which are lay people in the church who are trained to be Christian listeners (not actual counselors) helping people who are going through grief, difficult times, etc.  During this time of COVID most of this type of work has been done via Zoom or telehealth/telemedicine.  Patients/clients seem to be grateful they can maintain contact/communication this way and not feel so alone.

Since I have the time and maintain my license, I responded to the call for medical volunteers.  Wasn’t sure if they’d want somebody my age, but they did. 

Dan Ferguson ‘73
Director of the WA Allied Health Center of Excellence
Yakima, Washington

During this time of increased fear and anxiety for many people, I have observed how Faith has helped one’s coping mechanism for isolation, loneliness, as well as multiple emotional responses during covid.  Those that believe in their heart “I am with you always”, Matthew 28:20 – have been greatly comforted and encouraged.

I work in WA state and have multiple roles mostly in supporting changes health workforce education but also with supporting local and regional public health strategies and Behavioral Health initiatives to address the impact of the pandemic.

Eileen (Benson) Gemmell, ‘73
Nurse Practitioner
Silver Spring, Maryland

I’m a nurse practitioner who worked in a retirement community when this pandemic started. We were desperately trying to figure this out, using creative things like sheet protectors for face shields and plastic bags for gowns when PPE was minimal. We watched COVID spread like wildfire and every sniffle or cough was suspect. I had planned on retirement in April of ‘2020, which I did (as they had found a wonderful replacement for me), and now I’m volunteering in vaccination clinics several times a week. It’s a lot more fun being on this end of it!

Monica Amoroso ’72 
Registered Nurse

RN working/living in Montana big sky country…..worked in several different Native American clinics on the reservations during the last 2 years! Well, mostly became the “Covid nurse” doing the testing and participating in drive thru testing sites. If a patient had symptoms, they were seen in another area away from the non symptomatic patients. Overall, I would say that there was lots of COVID related teaching that I did, being aware of cultural traditions and how they fit in to lifestyle modifications due to the virus.

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