Belmont nursing adjunct professor Akhink Omer chose to be on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic because she knows what it’s like.
She’s been in the hospital bed. She’s struggled to breathe. She’s heard the scarily common diagnosis: “You’ve tested positive for COVID-19.”
Yet, when she beat the virus, she knew that was not the end of her fight. She joined the army of Belmont nursing alumni and faculty on the frontlines.
Coast to coast, Belmont graduates and professors alike are answering the call to combat the deadly virus sweeping the nation.
Omer’s fight began with chest pains.
In early March, the virus was just beginning to take root in Tennessee. So, when Omer experienced body aches, fever and cough on March 9, she assumed it was the flu. But as her symptoms continued after days of being on antibiotics, it became clear something was wrong.
“I didn’t want to believe it was corona. There were so few cases. I thought, ‘What are the odds of me getting it?’” said Omer.
After eight days of trying to manage the virus herself, Omer wasn’t getting any better. Her symptoms worsened until she couldn’t walk to the bathroom without struggling to catch her breath.
Doctors sent her to the ER of Metro General Hospital where she tested positive for COVID-19.
“It is scary because, you know, I am a nurse, so I have seen a lot of sick people before, but it’s different when it’s you,” said Omer. “I remember laying on the stretcher in the ER and looking up at all the fluids I was getting, and the antibiotics and the medications.”
“That was the first time it kind of hit me, ‘Oh, wow, I’m really sick.’”
Omer remained in treatment for eight days before her fever finally subsided and she could breathe again. But, even after being cleared of the virus and returning back home, the Nashville nurse still did not feel like her former self.
“Before corona, I was going to the gym three or four times a week. I was pretty active. After corona, I could only walk two houses down and then I would be exhausted and have to come back,” said Omer.
It took three weeks for her to fully recover, she said. Not long after, she accepted a job as a travel nurse working with COVID-19 patients at Carney Hospital in Boston.
As she boarded the plane, fears of a second infection of the virus crept into her brain. Omer remembered how miserable she felt in the hospital bed and asked herself if she could really endure it again.
But the bravery of the nurses who treated her compelled her to continue forward, she said.
“When I was in the hospital, nurses took care of me. It would be kind of hypocritical of me to sit at home comfortable, to have other people risk their lives for me, but not be willing to kind of do the same,” Omer said.
At Carney Hospital, Omer can sympathize because she has been where the patients are.
“Sometimes I will hear someone cough and it reminds me so much of a cough that I had back then and how miserable it was. It takes me back to that time,” she said. “I tried so hard to explain to people that when I coughed, I felt like I was choking. I felt like nobody really understood what I meant by that.”
“They don’t have to explain it to me. I already know what it feels like.”
Every now and then, when patients feel especially anxious about their health, Omer tells them about her own experiences with COVID-19. Her presence in the hospital sparks hope in the sick and reminds them recovery is possible, she said.
Omer herself remembers how isolating the experience can be, how lonely she felt with the no-visitor policy. So, the Belmont adjunct does her part to make those suffering feel less alone.
And she is not the only one in the Belmont community doing her part to fight the virus.
Alumni Mackenzie Lehmer travelled into the center of the pandemic to be on the frontlines.
Lehmer graduated from Belmont’s master’s program for nursing in 2018 and then began working for a hospital in Los Angeles. In February, she moved to Olympia with her fiance, leaving the ICU of Providence Holy Cross Medical Center for a new nurse practitioner position in Washington.
When she picked up the phone in mid-March, she was surprised to hear the voice of her former boss on the line. The voice told her the virus was inundating the hospital’s ICU and they were understaffed.
Would she come back to help? Would she travel the 18 hours back to LA for a couple of weeks? Would she temporarily leave her new life in Olympia for the frontlines?
After consulting her fiance and family, Lehmer’s answer was yes.
“They were all really supportive. They knew this was my calling,” said Lehmer. “I truly felt this was God calling me to help.”
Lehmer arrived at the hospital to find hallways empty of visitors and the atmosphere changed.
During her 15 shifts, Lehmer worked nonstop. She fielded phone calls, conducted emergency intubations and treated COVID-19 and ICU patients from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m.
“I didn’t take the time to slow down until I got back home. The days that I was there, I was really focused on working, doing research on evidence-based practice and treating patients,” said Lehmer.
“I was really just focused on trying to save people’s lives.”
The uncertainty surrounding the virus made that task all the harder for Lehmer. She suddenly found herself fighting a disease without determined guidelines and solutions.
“Before, we were treating things that had been studied for several decades, we have a lot of evidence and we are confident in treating those things,” Lehmer said. “With the coronavirus, there is an urgency to try to assess patients for trends and make observations on how certain treatments will help us care for patients more effectively.”
Lehmer found it difficult to watch patients navigate this uncertain illness without the physical support of their families. At one of the scariest, hardest times of their life, there was no one to hold their hand, Lehmer said.
“They’re scared. They’re relying on you. You’re the only person they have.”
Worse still were the days when they lost lives to the virus. Lehmer had to deliver the devastating news to families who waited outside the ER in the ambulance bay.
“To not be able to let them spend those last moments with their loved ones or to even see them afterwards was really difficult,” said Lehmer.
Amid these heartbreaking moments, Lehmer still managed to find the good in the situations. The community came together through funds and donations to show her what was worth fighting for, she said.
“Even in these dark times, I truly believe that light can be found.”
Across the nation, another 2018 Belmont nursing graduate Emily Richards persists through that darkness.
Despite the rising death toll, she continues to treat COVID-19 patients at the University of Rochester Medical Center in New York.
Richards never doubted her calling as a nurse.
She grew up, watching with admiration as her mother worked as a registered nurse. When she entered her undergraduate studies at Belmont, she developed a passion for the work that a pandemic can’t kill, Richards said.
Richards remembers sitting in a Belmont classroom and taking notes on a presentation on pandemics. She had no inkling she would actually be on the frontline only two years later.
“Nursing is the only thing I want to do,” she said. “I keep pushing through because ultimately seeing someone come full term from being super sick to recovery, it is such a rewarding profession.”
Lehmer, too, is thankful for her education by Belmont’s nursing faculty in preparing her to care for the victims of COVID-19.
“In addition to clinical knowledge, Belmont taught me so much about compassionate care for patients and how to be a patient advocate.”
As a faculty member herself, Omer is confident the recent Belmont nursing graduates are prepared to take on the nursing world, even in the midst of a pandemic.
“This isn’t going to be our normal forever. This is a scary time in the field of nursing, for anybody that wants to be a nurse, or who is graduating, but this isn’t always what it is going to be like. We forget that.”
In order for a return back to normal, all three nurses agree that following CDC guidelines and practicing social distancing is imperative in flattening the curve and stopping the spread.
For those antsy to re-enter the world, patience and understanding are key.
“The decisions you make affect the whole community. Not just you,” said Omer.
“This is a time to be selfless,” said Richards.
This article written by Kendall Crawford.