On the Front Lines: A Second-Year Ph.D. Nursing Student at a Hospital Transformed to Care for Coronavirus Patients

May 6, 2020

Shawna Townsend describes her experience at the Hospital for Special Surgery, where she trained the staff to care for COVID-19 patients.

Ph.D. student Shawna Townsend (Photo courtesy of Townsend)
Ph.D. student Shawna Townsend (Photo courtesy of Townsend)

Shawna Townsend is nearing the end of her second year as a Ph.D. nursing student at The Graduate Center. She recently spoke to The Graduate Center about her experience working at the Hospital for Special Surgery (HSS) in Manhattan — a top orthopedics hospital that converted operating rooms into ICU beds to care for critically ill COVID-19 patients on ventilators, and three other units for acutely ill patients who require oxygen therapy:

HSS made a decision to help the community hospitals. The community hospitals were getting hit hard with an influx of patients. We wanted to give the other hospitals a breather, to relieve the tension and the pressure.

We stopped doing surgery, stopped seeing people for elective visits. We’re affiliated with NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital. We started taking their medical patients who were not so acutely ill. We filled up a whole unit with their medical patients. They were not COVID-positive. Hypothetically.

That was a huge change for our staff. We did a lot of training. That’s where I came in, as a clinical nurse leader. The staff was very, very nervous. You could hear the fear in their voices. We had to develop education and training on the spot. How to don and doff protective equipment, how to take care of a patient with a tracheostomy, how to take care of a patient with a burn.

Then we decided to take COVID patients. We now have a whole unit for vented patients, and three floors dedicated to COVID patients.

It does seem to be getting better. We started with about 20 patients [on ventilators]. Now we have about 12 to 15. 

You learn to think differently as a graduate student. Health care is a complex environment, and with the crisis, you’re thinking about how to react, the disparities, the cultural issues. Before we even got hit in New York City, I was looking at the literature to see what the evidence is. Checking reliable resources. My education has been really helpful in that way.