Mariah Summerall at work at Sarasota Memorial Hospital

Image: Chad Spencer

Two years ago, Mariah Summerall was just beginning her nursing career in Sarasota Memorial Hospital’s lauded nurse residency program, where she was paired with veteran nurse Kathleen Faticone for a 12-week training period. Today, Summerall, who has since earned her Bachelor of Science in nursing while working full time at SMH, is a charge nurse for an ICU “step-down” respiratory progressive care unit—one of the hospital’s designated COVID-19 care centers.

 What has your COVID-19 experience been like?

“At first? Terrifying. It’s chaotic because everyone’s learning together. Nursing is usually very much like, ‘Here’s what’s wrong with you, here’s the plan, here’s the intervention, here’s the goal.’ But with COVID, everything’s been like, ‘We don’t really know, so we’re going to try this.’ Then you’re off for a couple days and you come back and it’s like, ‘We’ve decided to change everything.’ This is just such a new thing. We definitely struggled at the beginning to find a groove.

“The PPE and the equipment we use is constantly changing as we find new things and run out of some supplies. At first, we saw people in other countries wearing full HAZMAT suits, and then they’re telling us just to wear a mask and goggles. It’s such a learning curve. The CDC has guidelines that are like, ‘In an ideal world, this is what you use. In other circumstances, this is what you can use.’ Sometimes we just have to find the next best thing.

 "We also have Dr. [Manuel] Gordillo, who was part of diagnosing the first COVID patient at Doctors Hospital. He’s our infectious disease guru. He’s made himself super-available to us and is constantly keeping us up to date. He’s always asking, ‘What concerns do you have? What’s making you uncomfortable? What can I clarify?’

 "And my coworkers are amazing. We’ve become so much closer through all of this chaos. We’re constantly checking in with each other even when we’re not working. It’s a safe place because we’re all able to talk about how uncomfortable we are and how stressed we are.”

How do you find time to eat?

“I try to make myself a priority, too. Maybe you won’t take a full, sit-down, 30-minute lunch break—that never happens—but you need to take a minute to eat. Maybe you don’t take those vitals this very minute, or maybe you ask someone to deliver one medication for you. And then you do the same for them so they can go eat. It’s about not being afraid to say I need help. Luckily everyone’s pretty understanding.”

What do you wish the public understood more about nurses during this crisis?

“That nurses are doing their best. We’re maxing out at three COVID patients [assigned per nurse]. But you have to get dressed with all this stuff, and you have to bring everything you need with you into the room, and then you’re in there for an hour. There are no visitors allowed at the hospital. I can’t imagine how hard that is. [Family members] are just relying on updates from the nurses. But it takes a lot of time. People underestimate how busy it can be. We’re trying to protect ourselves so we can keep taking care of other people.”

 What makes a good nurse?

“Just accepting that you’re never going to know everything. When you start out, you’re like ‘How do I not know this?’ Nursing is about teamwork and not being afraid to ask questions. You’re constantly adapting to new situations. One day you have someone with the flu and they’re doing fine. Maybe the next day you have a patient who’s dying, and you have to call their family and have those hard conversations. Nothing is ever the same. Now I go into work knowing that there’s no way to know what to expect. I still love it. It’s everything that I thought it would be and more.”

To see more Sarasota Memorial Hospitals nurses at work, watch the video below.

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