Early next month, if times were normal, just over 100 graduate and undergraduate nursing students at St. Joseph’s College of Maine would gather for their pinning ceremony – symbolizing their entry into or advancement within a profession that cares for all of us in our most dire moments of need.

But in this year of the COVID-19 pandemic, when nothing is normal, that celebratory ritual will lack its usual luster.

“There will be something to engage the students,” Anthony McGuire, PhD, who chairs the Standish college’s nursing school, said in a phone interview. “Even if it’s just mailing them their cap and their gown and their diploma and their nursing pin and having them do something with their family – and then share that with us virtually so we can put it up on the website.”

And then off they’ll go into a world none of them could have imagined.

Everywhere we look on the TV these days, we see nurses: scrambling to keep up with the rising torrent of patients infected with the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19, or taking a moment to appeal for more fast-disappearing personal protective equipment, or quietly breaking down in tears under the sheer weight of this seemingly insurmountable challenge.

They are heroes, every one. And now, as May approaches and with it the next crop of newly minted nurses eager to apply their healing skills to real patients in real hospital beds, they’ve never been more desperately needed.

“If I went in scared, I don’t think that I’d do very well. Just knowing that I’m going to do the best that I can every single day, that’s all that I can really do,” said Carly Osgood, 22, who’s hard at work completing her final semester at St. Joseph’s online and, at the same time, looking for her first nursing job.

Osgood shares an apartment in Gorham with her fiance, who’s an advanced emergency medical technician, and two other roommates – one a pharmacy technician, the other a hospital security guard.

She grew up in York and, driven by a desire to help those in need of medical assistance, initially tried being an EMT. It didn’t take.

“I didn’t like how I dropped off patients at the hospital and I never really knew what happened to them again,” she said.

So, inspired by a certified nursing assistant course she took while in high school, she enrolled in St. Joseph’s bachelor’s degree nursing program in 2016, unaware that four years later she’d be emerging as a registered nurse into a full-blown public health crisis.

In a phone interview, she sounded in many ways like a young soldier about to be deployed to a war zone: confident yet cautious, excited yet nervous, eager to go from training to the real thing, yet well aware that when it come to actual boots on the ground she’ll still need guidance from those already in the trenches.

“I do worry, but I went into nursing because I really wanted to help people, and if it means I’m going to dive in very quickly, that’s what’s going to happen,” she said. “In nursing you need a lot of flexibility because you never really know what you’re going to go into.”

McGuire, the department chair, worries about not only his current flock of graduates but also those nursing alums from St. Joseph’s now working in hospitals that are either on red alert or already swamped with COVID-19 cases. It reminds him of his days as a young nurse in the 1980s, when he spent much of his time treating teenagers with gunshot wounds, many of them fatal, in emergency rooms in Los Angeles amid the rampant gang wars of that era.

“I was a guy from Maine who moved to California, and it essentially felt most of the time like I was working in a war zone,” said McGuire, who grew up in Gardiner. “I would often go home and think, ‘No one has any idea how I as a young person experience my job.’ ”

He remembers stopping at a 7-Eleven after a particularly grueling day, looking at the cashier and thinking, “I want that job. I would just love to be able to stand there at a cash register all day and say nice things to people and ring things up.” At least back then, McGuire said, “I could go home and it wasn’t in my face every day. Nowadays, (COVID-19) is all you hear about. It’s everywhere.”

Osgood already has seen her share of unpleasantness, both as a nursing intern and as an emergency room technician at Maine Medical Center in Portland. She’s confident she can handle what awaits her as a full-fledged nurse, but first she must find a position.

She’d hoped to move seamlessly into a nursing job at Maine Medical Center but was told that hires of new graduates are on hold because, as the pandemic sweeps across Maine, the typical one-on-one mentoring with an experienced nurse simply can’t happen right now. Rather than resent the hospital’s caution, she finds it “really admirable.”

So, as she completes her coursework online and logs her final clinical hours remotely via the college’s “sim lab,” with its high-tech mannequin “patients” and its forgiving margins of error, Osgood also finds herself applying for a spot in other hospitals throughout Maine where the need for nurses is paramount.

Back at St. Joseph’s College, McGuire hasn’t decided yet what his message will be next month to the Class of 2020, just as he’s unsure exactly how he’ll deliver it. But he’s certain it “will have something to do with being resilient.” And recognizing that even as they take care of others, so must they remember to take care of themselves.

As for Osgood, she’d be lying if she said she isn’t saddened by the fact that her pinning ceremony – she describes it as “crossing the bridge” between learning to be a nurse and actually becoming one – will not take place amid the usual hugs, cheers and other fanfare of a customary graduation day.

But that’s not what’s important now. What’s important is for her to be out there, on that front line, literally helping to save the world.

“I was going to have my family pin me anyway, so if that has to be done at home, then it’s done at home,” she said. “I’ll still have a pin and I’ll make the best that I can of it. I’m OK with that.”

Spoken like a true nurse.


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