Nurse in east Alabama working on front line to save coronavirus patients

Nurse in east Alabama working on front line to save coronavirus patients
Kelly Henderson, with her husband, Jeremy, says she has never seen anything like COVID-19 in her 24 years in nursing. But she still loves caring for people. (contributed)

When Kelly Henderson steps into the battle each day against the coronavirus, she doesn’t fear the deadly disease. Her mission is to continue doing what she set out to do 24 years ago.

National Nurses Week runs May 6-12 and Alabama NewsCenter is presenting a series of stories to mark the event and their work. (Getty Images)

“I love caring for people,” said the 48-year-old registered nurse at East Alabama Medical Center (EAMC) in Opelika, one of the state’s hot spots for COVID-19. “I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.”

National Nurses Week has taken on new meaning in 2020, as the pandemic has taken hold of America since March, putting more demands on America’s 4 million registered nurses. In Alabama, total confirmed coronavirus cases surpassed 9,200 and deaths from the disease were at 375 on May 8. Lee County, which is home to EAMC, has had 30 deaths among the 419 confirmed cases of coronavirus in the county that borders Georgia.

Henderson said nothing in her years as a nurse compares with the current situation. She has stepped into a couple of different roles since the crisis reached her hospital: intensive care unit nurse and floor nurse.

“I normally do rapid response and vascular access,” said the LaGrange, Georgia, native. “My husband, Jeremy, also had to step out of his normal job in labor management to assume a house supervisor position.”

The Hendersons had to let their high school senior daughter, Trinity, stay away from home for a while because of their unpredictable work schedules. Kelly has also juggled coursework for a master’s degree in adult-gerontology primary care from the University of Alabama at Birmingham. She will graduate in August and become a nurse practitioner.

Lee County is one of Alabama’s hot spots for coronavirus, and East Alabama Medical Center in Opelika is on the front line of the fight. (contributed)

Holding an associate nursing degree from Southern Union State Community College and a bachelor’s degree in nursing from Auburn University at Montgomery, Henderson is confident that EAMC “allows us to be protected properly.” Yet, state quarantine orders restrict family members from visiting patients, so Henderson has had to take on another role.

“I try to spend more time with my patients and let them know when I have updated their family on the phone and how their families are doing as well,” she said, noting that she can’t professionally take on the role of being substitute family.

The Alabama Department of Public Health COVID-19 Dashboard shows that nearly 80% of deaths statewide are of people 65 and older. About 18% of the victims are 50-64, with about 3% being 25-49 years of age. Of the 9,221 confirmed cases statewide, 1,327 have been health care workers. Henderson said one of her most memorable patients so far was in the lowest percentage for coronavirus fatalities.

“A 48-year-old, because he was so close to my age,” she said. “I was relieved to see him go home and be so much better.”

Henderson and nurses across the country have been working longer hours and taking on additional shifts to care for coronavirus patients. The upside for her has been getting to know more of the employees at EAMC.

The COVID-19 crisis has brought out the team spirit at East Alabama Medical Center. (contributed)

“I met people in our hospital that I may not have met otherwise,” Henderson said. “I made new friends and also strengthened some friendships from my rapid response and vascular access duties. Our hospitalists, our ICU pulmonologist, our infectious disease physician, respiratory therapists and pharmacists all play a role caring for these patients. EAMC has a team mentality throughout the organization and it is evident in this crisis that everyone believes in teamwork to care for these patients.”

The American Nurses Association is extending Nurses Week into Nurses Month, in the midst of the Year of the Nurse declared by the World Health Organization. The nonprofit American Nurses Foundation (ANF) has created the Coronavirus Response Fund for Nurses as an avenue for public support. Donations will provide funding, mental health opportunities, protective equipment information and other advocacy measures for nurses. Donations can be made on the ANF website or by calling 301-628-5015.

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