Florida Southern Salutes Nurses Serving Vital Roles During COVID-19 Crisis

May 1, 2020

by FSC Staff

With this year being the 200th anniversary of the birth of legendary nurse Florence Nightingale, 2020 was already going to be a special year for nurses. However, the worldwide coronavirus pandemic — and how nurses are at the frontlines of the battle — makes 2020 unquestionably the Year of the Nurse.

“No one could have predicted just how nurses would be thrust into national attention by the COVID-19 crisis,” said Dr. Linda Comer, professor of nursing and dean of the School of Nursing and Health Sciences. “Florida Southern is very proud of our alumni, nurses who are answering the call to serve their country and communities during times of crisis. We salute their clear communication, collaboration, resilience, and innovation.”  

In recognition of the crucial contributions of our nation's medical workers, we talked to several nurses with connections to FSC — two alumnae and a graduate student — and invited them to share their firsthand perspectives on our current healthcare challenges and the important lessons we can learn about caring for one another.

Kendall Moore 
Bachelor of Science in Nursing, 2018

Emergency Room Nurse at Lakeland Regional Hospital

Kendall Moore
Kendall Moore, Class of 2018

Since July 2018, Kendall Moore has worked in the emergency department at Lakeland Regional Hospital. She always works the night shift, often from 7 p.m. until 3 a.m., sometimes until 7 a.m. 

As the hospital made preparations to deal with COVID-19 cases in the Lakeland area, four of the emergency department’s 11 pods were set up to receive patients with respiratory issues. Two other pods were specifically designated to handle COVID-related needs. Four nurses are assigned to the COVID pods at all times. 

Moore has been spending roughly 90 percent of her work hours in either the respiratory or COVID pods.

“Anyone who comes in with respiratory problems — short of breath, or with a cough — goes to one of the respiratory pods,” Moore said. “If someone comes in and wants to get a COVID swab, with a doctor’s orders, we can do lab tests during the screening process to determine their exposure. But that doesn’t mean they will be admitted; they can rest at home, if they’re stable.”

The complexities of our current situation have led to much uncertainty among members of the public. Sometimes, however, nurses are finding that they must address COVID-19 concerns that seem unexpectedly basic. “It’s a virus, and people come in asking for antibiotics,” Moore said. “They have no effect on a virus. Not at all. None.”

When asked to share a valuable tip that would help in the fight against the coronavirus, Moore had another ready response: “Our first check-off in nursing school was how to wash our hands. We always saw the importance of it, but I never thought I would have to be telling all of my patients, ‘Use soap.’”

Blanton Building
Nursing students at FSC complete internships and gain clinical experience in diverse settings across central Florida.
Kaylen O’Leary-Muente
Bachelor of Science in Nursing, 2010
Master of Science in Nursing, 2017

Clinical Nurse Specialist at AdventHealth Celebration

Before relocating to Celebration, Fla., in April 2019, Kaylen O’Leary-Muente had worked for 16 years at Lakeland Regional Health. She started as a healthcare intern while in high school, then worked her way through nursing school at Florida Southern as part of the hospital’s cardiac telemetry unit. Following her graduation, she joined the intensive care team for three years, spent four years on the rapid response emergency team, then served for two years as the hospital’s stroke coordinator. 

Kaylen O'Leary-Muente, Class of 2010

In her current position as the stroke program manager at AdventHealth Celebration, O’Leary-Muente’s focus is on the effectiveness of the program’s operation — for the hospital, and for its patients — while also constantly asking, “Do the nurses have what they need to do the job?”

Recently, O’Leary-Muente was tapped to lead a team of workers in the establishment of TeleHealth interactive patient care in the hospital’s COVID unit, allowing doctors and patients to connect via computer screens.

By limiting direct interaction, the hospital uses less personal protective equipment (PPE) while decreasing potential coronavirus exposure for the doctors and the community. “We’re also trying to help set up outpatient doctors, for patients to be able to stay at home but still talk to a doctor or an advanced practice nurse,” O’Leary-Muente said. “If we see success with this, we may see a change in healthcare in the future. For the flu, for example, we’re going to do some things, regardless — like treatments and medications — whether you go in to the office or not.”

As the coronavirus situation has developed, O’Leary-Muente has noticed a significant decrease in stroke patients. “It’s really concerning, because we’ve heard that patients with stroke symptoms are afraid to go to the doctor for days,” she said. “It’s the same thing with heart attacks and chest pain. People are so scared; they just want to see if it gets better — and, unfortunately, with symptoms of heart attack and stroke, waiting can lead to death.” 

Her advice? If someone experiences symptoms of serious, emergent health issues that, on a normal day, would cause them to go to an emergency room, O’Leary-Muentes strongly encourages them to do the same now. 

“We have implemented safety measures to ensure your protection,” O’Leary-Muentes explained. “COVID patients are isolated to certain areas, to keep them separated from patients with other symptoms.”

Chase Varner
Fourth-semester Master of Science in Nursing student

Registered Nurse at Winter Haven Hospital

Currently studying at FSC to become a family nurse practitioner, Chase Varner earned his Bachelor of Science in Nursing at Polk State College. Born in Bartow but raised in Winter Haven, he is a second-generation Florida native who says he can’t imagine living anywhere else.

Varner family
Chase Varner, left, is working as the charge nurse in the COVID ICU department at Winter Haven Hospital. His wife, Brittany, also works as a nurse at the hospital. Their son, Jase, is 16 months old.

Varner has worked at Winter Haven Hospital for nearly seven years. After more than four years in the surgical intensive care unit, he transferred to the post-anesthesia care unit. His wife, Brittany, works as a nurse at the hospital as well. 

“After seeing the effects of COVID-19 in Italy, I knew that America was in trouble and would be in critical need of ICU nurses,” Varner said. “This prompted me to reach out to the leadership team at my hospital to offer my assistance to combat this disease. I was floated from my department to a newly developed negative-pressure COVID ICU and instructed that I would be the charge nurse of this department until further notice.”

As part of a major expansion and renovation project, Winter Haven Hospital’s ICUs recently were situated in a new building, Varner said. Fortunately, this relocation left behind four fully functioning ICU units, two of which were converted to negative-pressure units. These units are used to isolate patients with infectious conditions and protect people outside the room from exposure by preventing internal air from leaving the space. 

“What does it feel like to take care of COVID-19 patients? I can tell you, Day 1 is scary. You are constantly checking your mask for an air leak, and extremely worried about bringing this illness home to your loved ones.” 

After working for more than a month in the negative-pressure ICUs, however, Varner has been able to relax. “It is now just another day at the office,” he said. “After controlled exposure with proper PPE, paired with a negative-pressure room, the staff sees the patient’s needs outweigh their risk, and their drive to help and serve the community takes over.” 

“I remember clocking out on a Friday, thinking that three of the patients in my unit — who had been there for nearly two weeks — were probably never going to come off the ventilator, and would succumb to COVID-19. I came back on the following Tuesday and two of them were extubated, meaning the breathing tube was removed, and one had already been downgraded. The last of the three was later extubated and downgraded. Three people beat the odds that were against them. I believe this was because of my amazing colleagues and the willpower of our patients."

A colleague recently asked Varner, “Can you imagine the stories we will one day tell to our grandchildren?” Her question made Varner laugh. 

“Here we are, in one of the darkest times in America, standing in one of the highest-risk areas on the planet, and my co-worker is thinking about the life experiences and adventure we are living. This is just one example of what it takes to survive as a healthcare professional in this era.”

Comparing the current situation to being “hit with a tropical storm when we were expecting a Category 5 hurricane,” Varner expressed his gratitude to medical professionals in New York and Italy whose social media posts served as a heads-up, allowing healthcare workers in Florida to prepare for COVID-19. 

“I’d also like to thank the families of the patients we serve, for their courteousness, patience, and understanding during this time.”