The impact of COVID-19 has been felt across the globe, from far-flung regions to South Arkansas.

When and where the illness has hit, many alumni of South Arkansas Community College in El Dorado have been among the front-line health-care professionals who have provided aid and comfort to those who need it.

They have seen both tragedy and triumph in this pandemic, and worked past the point of exhaustion: Putting in untold hours, standing on their feet until every muscle ached, squinting at charts until their eyes crossed.

It hasn’t been easy for these SouthArk graduates, they said, but it has been rewarding—and necessary. These kinds of moments are, in fact, the reason why they wanted to pursue education in health sciences.

“You know, you hear about the nurses who made it through ebola, and the polio pandemic, and you think, man, they were tough and driven,” said practical nurse Candace Alderson, a 2014 graduate of SouthArk. “Never did I think I would have to dig as deep as them to do what I love to do.”

Alderson supervises the COVID clinic of a John Peter Hospital community health center in Fort Worth, TX, which began administering the COVID vaccine right around Christmas. She personally administered vaccines to more than 700 people in the first two weeks that the clinic was open, she said.

She found out early on just how serious that the illness can be, she said.

“We had heard of COVID, but no restrictions had been placed yet. No mask, no shield,” Alderson said. “We had an elderly couple come in for their normal three-month checkup. I remember talking with the couple a few minutes after their visit, walking them out and thinking to myself ‘They are still driving, and caring for grandchildren. Wow, they are doing good.’ Six days later they were both in hospital clinging on to dear life, and due to our being exposed within the last seven days, we had to be tested and quarantined until results where back. Though it was three hours, it felt like a lifetime.

“That night I got to go home to my family with a clean bill of health, but that couple didn’t. The wife passed away, and the husband lost his best friend.”

Beatriz Rowell, who graduated from SouthArk in 2017, is a respiratory therapist who works for a company that places medical professionals around the country wherever they are needed. A few weeks after the pandemic started, she left her hospital job in Arkansas to work for clinics outside the state, spending the next six months in New Jersey—one of the hardest-hit areas of the nation.

At that point she already had contracted, and recovered from, the virus herself.

“I remember realizing how contagious this virus was,” Rowell said. “I used proper personal protective equipment and washed my hands constantly, and I still contracted it. Thankfully, I had a very mild case and recovered with no difficulties.

“When I first heard about the virus, I never imagined it would turn into a pandemic. I feel like it happened so fast that I didn’t have time to fully process exactly what it meant. Not until hospitals began to use morgue trucks to preserve deceased patients’ bodies as the morgue space reached maximum capacity. I realized how much trouble we were in when health-care workers began to ration and reuse PPE, and facilities started to run out of ventilators.”

She said that she doesn’t think that anyone was “mentally prepared” to face what has happened over the last year.

“Last year I saw more than I ever wanted to see,” she said. “This virus is the ugliest thing I’ve ever had to deal with as a health-care worker. I have to keep reminding myself that we are doing everything we can for these patients, and accept that this virus is like no other.”

Still, Rowell keeps plugging away. She has moved on to Christus Good Shepherd Medical Center in Longview, TX, to continue working with COVID patients and others who need respiratory care.

“As long as I am able, I will do everything that I can to help during this pandemic,” she said. “I am motivated to travel and work anywhere I might be needed.”

Jessica Dawson, a 2015 SouthArk graduate, is a radiologic technologist at Bradley County Medical Center in Warren.

“During the pandemic, radiology has been a key factor because it is our department that shows how COVID affects the lungs,” Dawson said. “In some instances, we’re doing daily chest X-rays to see the development or decrease of COVID. I love what I do, and I am so thankful that I get to wake up each morning and go to work to do my part.”

But Dawson never thought that she’d see anything like COVID-19, she said, and, especially in the beginning, that was frightening.

“I think I can speak for a lot of people when I say I was scared—scared of the unknown,” she said. “I was scared for my health and the health of my family. To a certain degree, I am still scared, but I have been blessed to stay healthy and have not shown any signs of COVID-19.”

Dawson faces potential exposure regularly -- but most COVID patients who she sees end up recovering, due in part to her work.

“Unfortunately with the rise in COVID cases in Arkansas, we are seeing more and more patients come through the hospital. The majority of patients are showing mild to moderate symptoms and recover over time; however, I have seen people come through the ER and never leave the hospital,” she said. “Some of the most memorable cases are those where the patient comes into the hospital very sick, but is able to beat the virus and go home to his or her family.”

Dawson, Alderson and Rowell each stated that getting out of the pandemic will take everyone doing their part to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus, and strongly endorsed the correct wearing of masks, quarantining upon exposure, social distancing, frequent hand washing and the sanitizing of surfaces.

“If not for yourself, do it for your elderly grandma, or my mother who had cancer and has a compromised immune system, or your neighbor with COPD,” Dawson said.

The three alumni also spoke highly of what their educations from SouthArk have done for them personally and professionally in their navigation of the pandemic.

“I had great instructors at SouthArk, who were nurses who worked through a lot of hard times in their nursing careers. They told us about hard times like these that will come, but that we needed to push through,” Alderson said. “They prepared us by letting us know we would need patience and compassion. This career can be hard, but we are serving a purpose.”

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