For newly minted nurse Savannah Hayes, COVID-19 is a ‘baptism by fire’

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On Good Friday, Savannah Hayes drove into work at a Novant Health COVID-19 screening center in Winston-Salem with a basket of eggs in the seat next to her.

In our pre-pandemic world, Hayes, a newly minted nurse, would have had the day off. Those eggs would have gone to her three children. She wouldn’t have been hiding them for the sole purpose of delighting her (adult) colleagues just a few days before Easter.

But, in this unprecedented time, that’s exactly what Hayes did. She pulled up to the screening center an hour before her shift and placed the eggs around the clinic so that her team members would stumble across them throughout the day.

“They were part of an Easter basket a neighbor dropped off for my kids. I only had 12 of them, but I put six outside and six inside — just to give people something to make them smile,” Hayes said. “Everyone’s just looking for that human connection right now.”

Human connection is why Hayes decided to become a nurse. It’s part of a service mindset she discovered back when she was waiting tables at the Olympic in Walnut Cove.

“I worked there for two years, and I really connected with people a lot more than I expected to,” she recalled.

Hayes also had a deep interest in science, and when she was pregnant with her third child, she met a nurse who helped her realize that nursing could combine both passions in the same career.

“She said, ‘You know, you’d be a really good nurse,’” Hayes recalled. “It was never on my radar, but that put the bug in my ear. As soon as I had my son, I started my nursing journey.”

Hayes graduated from nursing school this past December. She completed her 12 weeks of training at Novant Health Forsyth Medical Center on March 12, and on March 13, she was setting up at one of the COVID-19 screening clinics.

It’s not how her career was supposed to begin. She’s supposed to be floating between clinics, getting experience in all aspects of nursing, figuring out what she wants to specialize in.

Instead, as she puts it, she’s undergoing a nursing “baptism by fire.”

“The first day, it was me and a physician assistant, a registration person and a few admins. We were labelling ‘clean’ and ‘dirty’ spots and unpacking boxed supplies, setting up a clinic in a matter of hours,” Hayes recalled. “We started seeing patients at 2 p.m. that first day. We brought in more team members the following week.”

Now, the clinic has a core team in place, which has created an unexpected benefit for Hayes. If she were in the so-called “float pool” right now, she would be rotating between clinics, never really spending enough time in one place to build relationships. In the clinic, she sees the same people every day.  

“We’re just a family. I look forward to coming here every day, no matter what we’re up against. It’s rare, especially when something so stressful is going on. But everybody comes in and says, ‘I’m so happy to see you today,’” she said.

There are other unexpected benefits, too. In fact, when you ask Hayes to list some of the silver linings of the past month, she has to pause.

“It’s not because there aren’t any; it’s because there are so many,” she clarified. “Happy things happen.”

One man pulled up to the side of the clinic and held up a handmade sign that said, simply, “thank you.” Churches have brought snacks. Through gifts from the community to the COVID-19 Disaster Relief Fund, the Novant Health Forsyth Medical Center Foundation has been able to provide lunch for our testing team every day.

“Just making decisions right now is difficult. When lunch is taken care of, we don’t even have to decide what to eat, and that really helps,” Hayes said.

This kind of support allows her to spend her energy on her patients and her work, which is vital under normal circumstances but all the more important now. At a minimum, she’s wearing a surgical mask and gloves all day, every day. When she’s patient-facing, she adds a gown and eyewear. That leaves her without the usual caregiving tools nurses have at their disposal. She can smile, but her patients can’t see. She can touch, but only when needed.

“So I try to use my sense of humor, and I usually say, ‘You can’t see it, but I’m smiling,’” she said.

Then, at the end of each shift, Hayes goes home. That transition can be hard, but she tries to keep as much normalcy as she can. She doesn’t sleep in an RV or a spare bedroom. She cooks dinner, hangs out with her husband and her children — ages 10, 8 and 3 — and then falls asleep.

“There was a moment when all of this first started when I was so exhausted, I fell asleep with my hoodie on. My husband reached over and felt my forehead to see if I was running a fever,” Hayes recalled. “That was one of those moments that made me want to cry. He’s holding it together for all of us. He tells me he’s proud of me. To my face, he’s very excited for me. And then, when all is quiet, he reaches over to check my forehead because I wore a hoodie to bed.”

Hayes knows the time will come soon when he won’t have to worry, when she’ll return to the float pool and the nursing career she had planned. She may not go on cruises again, but she’s not going to live in fear, either.

“COVID-19 has already stolen months of normal for us — holidays, birthdays. The level-headed nurse in me says that, once all of this passes, as much as it can, you just have to live because you don’t want to let the fears you’ve had during this time grow into phobias,” Hayes said. “Humankind has a way of evolving from these situations. We don’t forget them, but we eventually do get to a point where we can live in a world where this happened.”

Want to support nurses like Savannah Hayes who are on the front lines of our fight against the COVID-19 pandemic?

A contribution to the COVID-19 Disaster Relief Fund provides critical resources to the healthcare workers doing everything they can to keep our community safe.

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