Nearly two months to the day before she was supposed to walk across the stage at the DCU Center to receive her Bachelor’s degree in nursing, Worcester State University women’s basketball student-athlete Sam Ellis saw her senior year take a drastic and unforeseen turn.
Sam, a Grafton, Mass. native, was just two weeks removed from walking off the basketball court for the final time when she learned the remainder of her coursework would be completed virtually. Rather than retreat home to rest after captaining her team to the MASCAC Championship game for the second consecutive season, Sam went straight to work as a patient care assistant in the intensive care units at UMass Memorial Medical Center. Sam Ellis is a healthcare hero.
During the school year, Sam was working approximately one shift at the hospital per week, but has worked three to four days per week during the pandemic, while also finishing up her degree. Throughout the pandemic, both intensive care units at the hospital were at maximum capacity, containing strictly patients who had tested positive for COVID-19. Not until the past two weeks, says Sam, have things begun to look more “normal.”
Over the past three months, Sam has experienced some of the heartbreak the pandemic has caused firsthand. “Throughout the pandemic, visitors were restricted to all units within the hospital. It was emotionally challenging to FaceTime the patients’ loved ones from outside of the room as tears of fear and loss had taken over. Due to the respiratory impact, most of these patients were sedated and intubated. Not only could the family not interact, but it was hard to build patient relationships due to the impaired communication.”
On the opposite end of the spectrum, however, Sam’s spirits have been lifted by some patients’ triumph over the coronavirus. “While the pandemic was stressful and exhausting, it has made it that much better to watch patients fight back and beat COVID. I cared for a young man, who had a large family at home, who walked out of the hospital after being intubated for 28 days. While not all journeys were as bright as this one, it instilled hope that recovery was possible and that our job was a key component to the success.
While it was never in doubt, working as a nursing assistant during a global pandemic has helped solidify Sam’s decision to pursue a career in nursing. “I chose to become a nurse because of my unwavering desire to help others,” she said. “(During the pandemic,) I have watched nurses from different units and different states rise to the occasion. Instead of fearing the unknown, they embraced it every day. I am not only sure of my career path, but excited to join such a strong group of individuals.”
Although her basketball career is now over, Sam has some life-long lessons learned on the court that she now uses in the hospital. “Throughout my basketball career at Worcester State, my teammates became my second family. I was able to lean on them and they could rely on me, especially during the tough times,” she said. “Similarly, my coworkers and I are a team. Because of basketball, I am able to effectively communicate my concerns and fears with fellow nurses and PCAs, and vice versa. Being able to have these relationships has made it possible to cope with the devastation that COVID has struck.”
"All of our nursing students have stepped up to use the skills that Worcester State prepared them for as they serve on the front lines and in the health care community," said Worcester State head women's basketball coach Karen Tessmer. "Sam has continued to work and contribute to the safety, care, and recovery of COVID-19 patients during these challenging times. This experience combined the skills learned as an athlete, teammate, and leader with her strong educational background, but most importantly utilized her compassionate caregiving that will help her on her journey as a nurse. Sam, you make all of us at Worcester State proud."
Sam’s top takeaway from the pandemic is just how valuable life is. “Because of my job in the intensive care units, I saw the coronavirus take the lives of people of all ages, genders, and races. Many of these patients walked into the hospital complaining of symptoms similar to the common cold. Within less than a week, many of these individuals had their lives stripped from them. Life is unpredictable and I believe the coronavirus emphasized this. Do not take for granted your life or the lives of your loved ones. Embrace today and enjoy every moment.”
While Sam’s work at the hospital has involved the physical health of her patients, she says it is absolutely vital to take this time to focus on your own mental health as well. “This pandemic has affected the lives of every single person in one way or another,” she said. “When life gets frantic, we tend to put our mental health at the bottom of our list of priorities. I urge everyone to take time out of their day to cater to their mental health, whether this is doing a workout, going for a walk, talking with a friend, embracing a nap, or practicing mindfulness. Your mind and body will thank you.
“Sometimes you have to go through darkness to get to the light. While our lives had been taken over by the darkness recently, I believe the light is starting to shine brighter and brighter each day. Therefore, as the reopening stages continue to progress, be extra kind to one another and stay safe, happy, and healthy.”