GREENVILLE—Fourteen years into her career as a registered nurse, Nelly Wheeler finds herself with many other Pitt Community College health sciences alumni on the front lines of the fight against the coronavirus pandemic.
A 2006 Associate Degree Nursing graduate, Wheeler normally works night shifts in the Cardiac Outpatient Unit at Vidant Medical Center (VMC). These days, however, her schedule varies considerably as she splits time between the cardiac unit and helping battle the viral outbreak.
“My unit is currently closed for night shifts and weekends, due to the pandemic outbreak,” she explains. “Our doctors are only performing procedures for urgent cases. All other elective cases are on hold until further notice.”
Wheeler says she never really expected her nursing career would include battling a pandemic, but she’s not surprised. “As nurses, we are ready for pretty much any scenario; the human body’s functioning is unpredictable,” she said.
When she’s not caring for cardiac patients, Wheeler is stationed at a hospital entrance, taking people’s temperatures and distributing protective masks to all visitors. As a native of Colombia who came to the US in 1997 and earned her citizenship in 2009, she says her ability to speak Spanish and English fluently has come in handy.
“Yes, especially educating people about this virus and why they should remain at home,” she said. “Also, rather than having a Spanish-speaking visitor wait 30 minutes for an interpreter, I have been ready to speak with them at the door. It feels good to help.”
Though she admits it can be somewhat unnerving to interact with the public as a dangerous illness increases its reach around the globe, Wheeler says the most difficult aspect of her job right now is seeing how the situation affects patients and their families and friends.
“Not allowing patients to have any visitors affects people differently, but it’s particularly sad for the little patients in our children’s hospital,” she says. “As difficult as that is for me to witness, maintaining their health is a must. Their immune systems are so fragile that we must take every precaution possible to protect them from this crisis.”
Wheeler says the steps her alma mater recently took to help protect VMC health care workers made her proud to be a PCC Bulldog. Late last month, Pitt administrators approved a resolution that allowed the college to donate to the hospital medical- and industrial-grade personal protective equipment normally used for instructional purposes.
“I appreciate my PCC family and have always known I could count on them,” Wheeler said. “I contacted them, asking for any protective equipment and cleaning supplies that could be donated to Vidant Medical Center. They answered that same week, donating safety equipment to help prevent sickness in our community. Thank you PCC for always caring.”
PCC Vice President of Administrative Services Rick Owens said college employees jumped into action to gather items for VMC, including N95 respirators, ear loop masks, gloves and hospital gowns.
“Knowing there is a national shortage of protective equipment, our health sciences division moved quickly to find all of the items they could to assist the Vidant Medical Center health care teams that are taking great care of patients,” he said.
Wheeler says she developed that same level of commitment to the serving the community as a PCC student, which included a year as a PCC Student Ambassador and another as president of the college’s Rotaract Club.
“I learned how important it was for me to do my part to work for the betterment of my community,” she said. “Just before graduation, Rotaract members traveled to Chicago to carry out a service project at the House of Hope, a homeless shelter for women recovering from addictions. It was an experience I will never forget and one that gave all of us who went more incentive to contribute to our own communities and make a positive impact on people’s lives.”
In addition to the life lessons she learned away from the classroom as a PCC student, Wheeler says the training she received from her Pitt nursing instructors provided a solid foundation for her career and is paying off during the current health crisis.
“I will always value the education I received at PCC,” she said. “I use the information I learned in microbiology class every day and still practice the skills I developed in my public speaking course when I am communicating with patients, hospital visitors and co-workers. The nursing training I received at PCC was hands-on from the beginning, and our instructors always emphasized the importance of teamwork, which is how we will get through this pandemic.”
Wheeler encouraged members of the community to help reduce the spread of coronavirus by staying at home as much as possible in the weeks, and perhaps months, ahead.
“Americans are known to come together in times of distress,” she said. “Right now, staying home is the best thing people can do to protect their health and contribute to the well-being of their neighbors.”
It is also an opportunity, she says, for families to spend quality time together strengthening ties, whether it’s through playing board games, watching movies or passing on family history to new generations.
“We have so many things to be thankful for, despite the tough times we are experiencing and the tension we’re feeling as we wait for the pandemic to end,” Wheeler said. “This health crisis will eventually pass, so let’s spend the time we have in the days ahead reinforcing our principles of caring, tolerating and understanding other’s necessities.”
Until the all-clear is sounded, Wheeler says the community can count on her and the dedicated emergency and health care specialists she works with to do whatever it takes to battle the coronavirus pandemic.
“Long hours and making sacrifices in situations that could prove dangerous to our own health is just what we do,” she said. “We love the professions we practice every day and the communities we serve.”