Clemson nursing alumni share experiences of working on COVID-19 frontlines


School of Nursing Alumni Cindy Shaw, Doris Malcolm, and Erin Bulatao share their stories about being on the COIVD-19 frontlines.
Cindy Shaw, a registered nurse and recent graduate from the School of Nursing Master’s Program, traveled to New York to care for COVID-19 patients for two months.

She wears her mask and a protective gown over her scrubs for six to 12 hours at a time during her shift at the hospital.  Her face has bruises from wearing her N95 mask all day except during her lunch break. When she leaves the hospital, she puts her shoes in a plastic tub in the trunk of her car. As soon as she walks through her apartment door, she takes off her scrubs, jumps in the shower and then wipes down her path through the apartment with Clorox.

Cindy Shaw signed up for this. When this 2020 Clemson School of Nursing alumna, who recently earned her master’s degree, signed up to work for two months in a Staten Island hospital as part of COVID-19 relief work, she knew she would face daily decontamination procedures that most people only associate with worst-case scenarios.

She came after the surge of patients, and now she’s helping nurses and physicians in this hospital care for the increased number of patients, Shaw said.

Though Shaw lives in Upstate South Carolina and works at Prisma Health, she is originally from the New Jersey area. When she heard of her family and close friends suffering from COVID-19, she began considering leaving her 3-year-old daughter, her 15-month-old daughter and her husband to help her community.

“It was not an easy choice to make, but your heart breaks when you hear of your friends and family suffering,” Shaw said. “This is why you get into nursing– to help the community.”

Shaw left her family on April 19. She said it’s eerie in Staten Island where everyone wears masks and so many businesses are closed– a completely different atmosphere than in South Carolina.

“Everywhere you go, you see evidence of COVID-19,” Shaw said. “You can’t escape it. I feel like I’m in a parallel universe with how everything’s been turned upside down.”

Though she is getting paid more to work in New York, which is considered a high-risk area, she said she wouldn’t have left South Carolina if she thought she’d be leaving a deficit of health care workers in the community with still having so many friends and family affected in the NYC metropolitan area. Though South Carolina didn’t have the initial surge of COVID-19 cases that nurses were expecting, Clemson nursing alumni still had their daily work life interrupted due to the pandemic.

Erin Bulatao spends her entire shift in her mask and googles during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Erin Bulatao spends her entire shift in her mask and googles during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Erin Bulatao, a 2006 Clemson School of Nursing alumna, is a nurse at a cancer outpatient infusion center in Beaufort, South Carolina. Her daily workflow has changed drastically and keeps changing depending on recommendations by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. While she always wore a mask and goggles while administering chemotherapy to her patients, she now keeps that personal protective equipment on for her entire shift.

She spends each morning reflecting on the previous day and prays for guidance during the new day. This is a vital part of her new routine; she says it is key to keeping her sane, and this is far from hyperbole. But, even in the midst of a trying, unprecedented time, she wouldn’t trade her profession.

“For me, nursing is a calling,” Bulatao said. “Each day, I try to remember to thank God for giving me the gift, ability and skill to work in this wonderful profession.”

In the Upstate, Prisma Health nurse Doris Malcolm, a 1989 Clemson School of  Nursing alumna, starts her workday in prayer with her coworkers and a chaplain in a Greenville hospital, along with the requisite temperature check and questions about potential exposures. She and her colleagues deep clean every surface around their desks and in their unit that they might touch for the day.

Doris Malcolm, a Prisma Health Emergency Room nurse has had to adapt to changes in the ER to take extra precautions during COVID-19.
Doris Malcolm, a Prisma Health Emergency Room nurse has had to adapt to changes in the ER to take extra precautions during COVID-19.

It’s telling what stands out during a time like this. The contrast of one area to another for Shaw. The necessary time of reflection for Bulatao. For Malcolm, what stands out to her is the sense of isolation among coworkers while caring for patients due to safety precautions in the ER.

“We have to limit contact with potentially infected patients, but ER nursing is a team sport, and it’s hard to watch one nurse handle it all in a room alone,” Malcolm said.

While the surge in South Carolina has not been as bad as expected nor as bad as New York, there is still the very real possibility that these nurses can unknowingly jeopardize the health of family and friends. The safe harbors they would normally use as distraction are now closed to them, and self-care has become difficult with the stress of the pandemic. However, Shaw said that nurses are a special kind of people who are tough and who tend to look at the positives in dire situations.

Shaw said the outlook on the pandemic in her Staten Island hospital is improving. Every time someone with COVID is released from the hospital, a song is played over the intercom. Shaw said she hears that music more often through the days, and knows that we, as a nation, will make it through this crisis.

“I was here for 9/11, and I was in New Jersey during Hurricane Sandy,” Shaw said. “We survived 9/11, we survived the hurricane, and we will survive this.”

Bulatao has too experienced a severe crisis during her nursing career. She was in San Diego as a travel nurse during the initial H1N1 outbreak, commonly referred to as Swine Flu. At that time, she experienced changing policies and personal protective equipment requirements, something she said helped her prepare for the similar measures taken during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Malcolm, Bulatao and Shaw said these previous experiences as well as lessons taught by Clemson nursing professors has helped them through this uncertain time in their career. The advice they remembered was to follow your nursing intuition, ask questions, and maintain a sense of community.

And these three alumni have some advice for other nurses as well:

  • Take time to breathe when you feel stressed;
  • Slow down and take the necessary precautions to take care of yourself; and
  • Trust your nursing instincts.

Bulatao said taking time to breathe helps her when a stressful situation becomes overwhelming.

“I practice five-five-five breathing to help ground myself during a stressful time,” Bulatao said. “I inhale slowly through my nose for five seconds, then exhale slowly through my nose for five seconds, and then I wait five seconds before breathing again. I do this for one minute and it makes me feel calm and in control.”

Through social media, Shaw has maintained her sense of community, which she said is a big part of what’s keeping her motivated through this crisis. Clemson professors and colleagues have reached out to her via social media and have created a community of support. This sense of community has been incredible for her to watch during this pandemic.

“I feel blessed to be surrounded by caring individuals and colleagues in the nursing community,” Shaw said. “We are focused on trying to help others, so we check in with each other to make sure everyone is okay after a hard day. We are unified in overcoming this virus.”

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