Finishing Hagerstown Community College's registered nursing program on Friday, Samantha Hewitt said she could find herself working once again with COVID-19 patients.
The Fayetteville, Pa., resident said she was one of HCC's nursing students who worked at Meritus Medical Center earlier this year when state officials encouraged health-care and educational institutions to allow qualified students to help health-care operations in some capacity. Gov. Larry Hogan renewed that encouragement earlier this month with hospital and health-care workers strained by the spike in COVID-19 cases.
Hewitt and fellow student Madeline Jernigan, of Walkersville, Md., both said they worked at Meritus, helping with the type of duties a certified nursing assistant would handle. Those include checking patients' blood sugars, bathing patients and changing linens.
"It was definitely a good experience and stuff I'll carry with me through my nursing practice," said Jernigan, 24.
Hogan specifically encouraged college and universities in the state to allow health-care students in their final semester who have satisfied graduation requirements to exit early so those students can enter the workforce. That means expediting testing and licensing requirements.
Jim Fielder, Maryland's secretary of higher education, said the need for students to help was recognized early in the pandemic. The Maryland Higher Education Commission started working in April with colleges and panels like the state Board of Nursing.
The integrity of degree programs couldn't be compromised and institutions needed to make sure academic credentials were in place and students were ready to work, Fielder said.
With nurses, colleges had options to graduate students early with four weeks left in a program, said Emily Dow, assistant secretary for academic affairs. One was to allow high achieving students to take their finals early so they could take their national licensing exam. The other involved having the entire class compress the last four weeks into one week.
By the time the governor made his announcement Dec. 1, HCC President Jim Klauber said neither was an option for the school's registered nursing program this semester because it was so close to graduation.
Hopefully, COVID-19 is "in retreat" by the spring, Klauber said. If not, HCC will consider expedited options for the spring graduation. Klauber said he was leaning toward the option that allows high achievers to test early.
Nursing school is difficult and some students struggle, he said. Compressing a month into a week could overwhelm them and they might flunk out, which doesn't do anyone any good, Klauber said.
The early exit strategy has been primarily focused on nursing students, but the higher-ed commission and others are working on ways other medical students could help during the pandemic.
The Maryland Institute for Emergency Medical Service Systems, also known as MIEMSS, established emergency credentials earlier this year to allow hospitals, nursing homes and other employers to hire semi-skilled nursing and respiratory students while they continue their studies.
Hewitt and Jernigan said that's how they were able to help at Meritus.
Since COVID is a respiratory disease, Dow said respiratory therapy students could help set up ventilators and provide care for respiratory issues.
Among the Maryland colleges and universities with respiratory therapy programs are Frederick Community College; Allegany College of Maryland in Cumberland; and Salisbury University on the Eastern Shore, as well as more urban institutions, according to the commission.
Pharmacy students also might have needed skills, particularly when it comes to administering vaccines, Dow said.
Frostburg State University's physician assistants program, offered locally through the University System of Maryland at Hagerstown, has been working with Meritus to see what kinds of duties its students can volunteer for at the hospital over their winter break, said Dr. Beth Smolko, program director. Those students don't graduate until spring.
The physician assistants students would support certified nursing assistants at the hospital, according to a text from Meritus Health spokeswoman Joelle Butler.
Jernigan said she wasn't floated to the COVID unit earlier this year, but it was a possibility that crossed her mind.
"It was kind of scary at first," but Jernigan said she would have done it if asked. There's always the possibility that after she gets some experience as a registered nurse after passing her boards, she could find herself in the COVID unit, she said.
"When you sign up for this job, patients are your number-one priority," Jernigan said. Hospitals are going through the "thick of it" now, but hopefully the pandemic will end soon, she said.
Jernigan was expecting to start work at Meritus in February, after passing her boards. But she said she got called up early and now expects to start later this month as an extern, doing work similar to what she did earlier this year, while she studies for her boards.
"It'll be good to get acclimated," Jernigan said.
Meritus has hired 14 recent nursing grads from schools in the Four-State area, Butler wrote in an email. Six of them, like Jernigan, will join the hospital while studying for their boards before they start as registered nurses in late winter.
The hospital hired 11 clinical externs in the spring who helped with the initial phase of the pandemic, Butler wrote. Their duties included taking vital signs and helping patients with daily activities and mobility.
Hewitt said it was easier for the nursing students to be "a little naive" earlier this year when accepting assignments to work with COVID-19 patients. It was kind of exciting, she said.
But once you get in there and see how sick the patients are, it wasn't exciting or fun, said Hewitt, 27.
"Thankfully, the patients I had over the summer — only a handful were very sick," she said.
Hewitt said she expects to start working at Wellspan Chambersburg Hospital later this month, once she passes her boards.
Hewitt has had COVID-19 herself, but she said she didn't get very sick from it.
If asked again to work with COVID-19 patients, Hewitt said she'd feel "obligated to pay my dues," but she's also concerned about exposing her family, including members who would be at high risk if they contracted the virus.
One of those is her 7-year-old daughter, who was born with a heart defect that needed repairing. It was the incredible nurses her daughter had that inspired Hewitt to switch from accounting to nursing.
"They didn't just take care of her, but took care of us as well," Hewitt said of the nurses at Children's National Hospital in Washington, D.C., and Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.
"If I can give back a fraction of what they did for me up there, I'll consider myself successful," Hewitt said.