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“In times of uncertainty, innovation happens”: The Bears Who Cared For Us During COVID-19

On the front lines of a global pandemic, Baylor faculty, students, and alumni relied on their education, their faith, and one another.

In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, Dr. Halli Carr flew from Dallas to Houston. A hospital needed help, and she wanted to be there.

“I eat, sleep, and breathe healthcare,” said Carr, an experienced nurse practitioner. “I’m a duck in water; it doesn’t matter where the water is.”

She was already familiar with the virus’ impact from her work as a professor at Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas, but even still, what she saw in Houston was heartbreaking. Patients were completely isolated; they had no interaction with their families or each other. Further, the nurses tending to their care were covered in so much protective equipment that only their eyes were visible. So Dr. Carr donned a gown.

“I’ll never forget how I was covered from head to toe, and this patient kept asking me, ‘Am I dirty?’” Carr recalled. “I couldn’t even hold her hand.”

She paused, shuddering at the memory.

“We’re not meant to be isolated like that.”

Dr. Carr is just one example of the myriad Baylor professors, students, and healthcare professionals who have served on the front lines of the pandemic since spring 2020. These Bears have spent untold hours both saving lives and grieving for the ones they’ve lost, and now, looking back on over three years of work, they’re reflecting on what they’ve learned—and the challenges that lie ahead.

“In times of uncertainty, innovation happens,” Dr. Carr said. “Institutions like Baylor have some of the greatest and brightest minds in the whole world, and even when we couldn’t be together, or hold each other’s hands, our brains could be together.”

Sara Nessel, a nursing student in her final year of college, has benefited from many of those great and bright minds.

“I love the people here,” said Nessel, who is currently working as a technician (one level below a nurse) while finishing her degree at Baylor University Medical Center. “All of the professors are so supportive, and they’ve basically taken me in as a daughter even though they don’t really know me.”

In fact, Nessel never planned on being a nurse.

After graduating from high school in Flower Mound, a Dallas suburb, she enrolled in Baylor’s pre-med program. She can’t fully explain it, but a certain feeling nudged her toward nursing. It turned out to be the best decision she has made.

“I can’t wait to be in the shoes of a full-time nurse,” she said. Thanks to Baylor, she feels confident about her future.

“I always tell people, ‘I’m definitely not ready to go right this second, but if you threw me in a nursing ward, I think I could figure it out,’” she said. “I’ve talked to people at other schools, and that’s not always the case.”

That said, the pandemic has posed plenty of challenges for Nessel and her fellow students.

As readers of this story undoubtedly know, a Baylor education can already be both challenging and rigorous. But recently, the Bear brass have gone even further than normal to ensure students and future healthcare practitioners like Nessel receive the care and support they need.

“As a Christian university, we made the decision to give more grace than ever before,” said Dr. Linda Plank, Dean of the Louise Herrington School of Nursing. “Our attendance policy became less strict, we invested more time in support and relationships, and we went out of our way to give them the care they needed. They were going through a lot.”

They extended that same care to patients, too.

Many days, even after they had worked back-to-back 12-hour shifts, Dr. Plank would see nurses get off work and go hold the hand of a patient the nurses knew wouldn’t be there the next day.

“If someone was in their final moments, they wanted to be with them,” she said. “As much as technology has been a part of this pandemic, there’s still a lot to be said for bedside care.”

As hard as the losses were, Dr. Carr said that she and her fellow practitioners would find hope in the victories: those patients who would teeter back and forth between progress and decline for days on end, until one day they turned a corner and beat the virus.

Over the last several years, that camaraderie and community was essential to Dr. Carr’s own health.

“It’s wonderful to teach for a faith-based institution where they care about me personally and professionally,” Dr. Carr said. “We lean on each other, and had it not been for that support system, I don’t know if we would’ve been able to make it through this pandemic as well as we have.”

Nowadays, even as nurses and future nurses alike find their lives occupied by COVID-19, these life-saving Bears are taking what time they can to look ahead. Both Dr. Plank and Dr. Carr say the healthcare profession is changing, in large part because of the pandemic.

Take classes, for instance. Before the word “COVID-19” was part of our everyday vocabulary, students and professors alike were seldom engaging in class via computer—at least not in the healthcare field. Another big change is the people themselves: the nurses, technicians, and physicians doing this critical work.

Dr. Carr said a lot of people like Nessel felt called to nursing in the last few years, and when the pandemic thrust nurses into the spotlight, many passionate young people understood for the first time what it really means to be a nurse.

“There’s a lot of new blood coming in,” Dr. Carr said. “We’re in a period of evolution and change, and I have faith it’s all for the better. We’re asking more questions and putting our heads together and using technology that takes away the distance.”

In other words, whatever changes may come, the Bears will be ready. Perhaps no one knows this better than Dr. Plank, who graduated from Baylor nursing school in the ‘70s. When she later became an administrator, she took every opportunity to hire fellow Baylor grads. Then, she’d watch as they adapted to everything that was thrown at them.

“I think every administrator will tell you that if they’re getting a Baylor nurse, they’re getting someone who is ready to do the job but also has a heart,” she said. “Health care used to be a more rigid field, but that’s changed, and we’ve changed with it.”

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