Alumni Life: Amanda Begley ’14
When Amanda Begley ’14 first heard about COVID-19, she had no idea what it would become. She remembers hearing about it at work when it was only overseas. People were still planning vacations and conferences. “Our opinions are influenced by the way the media presents things, and at first a lot of people didn’t think it was going to be such a big thing,” she says. She couldn’t have anticipated how it would impact the world.
Begley is an intensive care unit (ICU) nurse with MedStar Washington Hospital Center in Washington, D.C., where she’s worked for two years. Her job is intense, but it’s reached new heights during the pandemic. When the U.S. began identifying cases, she knew it would affect her work. MedStar Washington is a large hospital, with five ICUs. When they saw how quickly the disease had escalated elsewhere, they designated four of the ICUs to care for COVID patients. Once Begley’s unit began to take in patients, it was full within a few weeks. “There was a great amount of time where my ICU was just full of these patients,” she says.
Admitting patients isn’t the difficult part; testing them is. Anyone who presents with symptoms is admitted and has to stay and wait for test results, which is what led to the rapid fill of the unit. There was debate about the merits of repeating the test if it came back negative, as it’s expensive and time-consuming. But in the case of some patients, who were really showing symptoms, the first test came back negative and repeat tests were positive. Begley says, “During this time, people forget that there are a ton of other respiratory illnesses that affect the population.” She says her priority was to accurately determine what the patient had, so she would have the best information on how to treat them and keep them safe.
Begley was very impressed by the speed with which her hospital set up safety protocols. The hospital’s initial goal was to make every effort to ensure only COVID-19 patients who needed to be hospitalized were admitted. A screening tent was set up outside with air and heating capabilities and became the triage center for anyone with symptoms. This allowed the emergency room to remain open to other emergencies and allowed the separation of possible COVID-19 patients from the rest of the hospital.
“We could test people, but if you didn’t need to be in the hospital, you wouldn’t be there,” Begley says. “We would be able to take care of you, and let you know when to follow up.”
She says the hospital has been very good about communication, with daily email updates about the virus and the hospital: “I appreciated how much they were able to communicate and how quickly and efficiently they were able to initiate their plans.”
All staff members are given personal protective equipment (PPE). As there is a shortage due to the crisis, the type of PPE has changed, and staff is limited to one mask per day. “When something’s new, you’re obviously not used to it,” Begley says, “but we’ve adapted, and it’s easy once you say to yourself, ‘This is a medical gown, it just looks different.’” Each staff member wears a gown, face protective shield, goggles, gloves, and mask. The staff is encouraged to keep their distance from co-workers, though it’s hard because, as Begley says, “medicine is a team sport.” They clean surfaces at the beginning of and halfway through each shift. It’s the little things that make the most difference in making sure the hospital is safe, Begley says.
As for staying positive during these difficult times: “I have a whiteboard in my kitchen. Each day, I write one thing I’m thankful for at the top.” She says before the crisis, people lost track of the little things, and now there’s time to appreciate them. Begley has been getting back into painting, and she’s trying to be there for others. For instance, one of her co-workers lived with her for two months, because Begley’s apartment is close to the hospital. “It was nice to have the company,” she says.
Begley’s advice is to stay home and stay safe: “Mental health is a part of your health, and taking time is important.” Getting out of the house to take a walk, while still being safe, is important. Once again, it’s about the little things.