Just one week before Christmas Eve, Emma Kay Jetty left her job around 7 a.m. after working all night.
She had no visions of sugarplums dancing in her head. The ICU nurse was thinking about the COVID-19 patients to whom she had provided care overnight. They are “the sickest people I’ve ever seen … We try to put out one fire that’s going on in their bodies, only to find there is another one. We take one step forward and two steps backward.”
Photo: Emma Kay Jetty earned her bachelor’s degree in nursing from Lander University in May 2020 and began her job as an ICU nurse caring for COVID-19 patients and others in need of critical care in July. She is among many Lander University nursing alumni working on the frontlines of care during the pandemic. Photo by Laura Brown
The fires of the pandemic have been a way of life since May, when the 22-year-old Jetty, dressed in her commencement robe, stood in front of her apartment across from the Lander University campus and waved to cars passing by. Her mother and brother had adorned the front lawn with celebratory streamers and balloons because Jetty – and other members of the Spring Class of 2020 – had their graduation postponed in the wake of the pandemic.
On that springtime day, Jetty’s enthusiasm never wavered, even though the “sting” of not having a ceremony was deep. “I was devastated,” said Jetty, who joined other Spring graduates on Dec. 12 for an in-person commencement ceremony.
“The moment was particularly complicated for me because of the career I was pursuing. Knowing I would be joining the frontline workers, I knew the importance of canceling big events like this one. However, knowing it was the right choice didn’t make it sting any less.”
After her curbside celebration, Jetty spent the next weeks studying for the National Council Licensure Examination, the nationwide test for the licensing of nurses in the United States. By July 6, Jetty was beginning orientation for her nursing career at Self Regional Healthcare. A week later, on July 12, she was working in ICU and taking care of COVID-19 patients.
Although COVID-19 cases began to drop after mask mandates were put in place in many cities and counties throughout South Carolina in the summer, including the City of Greenwood, the spike in cases is high again, Jetty said.
“The ICU cares for many different types of illnesses – heart, neurological, end-of-life cases, cancer and other diseases,” Jetty said. “Many hospitals now are dealing with caring for an overflow of very sick patients, along with COVID cases.”
Although she worked in the ICU and Critical Care Units at Self as a student nurse, Jetty learned quickly that caring for COVID-19 patients is challenging.
National news stories have given Americans some insight into the disease that has multi-faceted complications and about which little was known in the early months of the pandemic. During that time, Jetty said most of the patients were older. Now, she is also seeing patients who are younger.
She’s learned to decompress from the exhaustion and challenges, thanks to the nurses, doctors and hospital mentors who have become a second family.
“They are phenomenal. Some days are traumatizing, but I’m fortunate to have their support. I work with great people,” she said, also giving her own family and friends credit for the strength that they have given her. “Because of the support in the workplace and in my personal life, I am encouraged to go back for the next shift.”
When Jetty left her home in Effort, Pa., to begin her classes at Lander in the Fall of 2016, she never imagined – as no one could have – that she would begin her nursing career at the beginning of an international pandemic. “It has taken all of us by storm,” said Jetty.
Thrown into the maelstrom of COVID-19 care, Jetty and her peers perhaps can be compared to the young nurses who worked in battlefield hospitals during World War I and World War II – and all subsequent wars – and cared for patients with injuries they had never studied.
Jetty and other colleagues, also new graduates, sometimes ask each other, “Can you imagine what kind of nurses we’ll be in four or five years, or even a decade, when this is what we’re doing now?”
Dr. Holisa Wharton, dean of Lander University’s William Preston Turner School of Nursing, said, “Emma is one of many Lander alumni working on the front lines of COVID care, including some who are new graduates just like she is. They are an amazing group of nurses.”
Jetty’s class had their in-hospital, clinical classes suspended when the pandemic struck. “That was a blow to nursing programs everywhere,” Wharton said. “But Emma already had worked at Self as a nurse extern, and she had experience caring for very sick people, maybe not COVID patients, but patients who had serious medical needs. Self got a gem when they hired Emma.”
Wharton said that Jetty represents the quality nurses whom Lander is preparing.
“This pandemic reinforces why our program is rigorous. We are educating nurses who must be ready to meet the challenges that medicine requires, and never have we been more determined to prepare the best possible nurses for our profession.”
Jetty said she is able to meet the day-to-day tests of her skills because of her education at Lander. “The nursing school prepared me unbelievably well, academically, of course, but the faculty themselves were incredible role models. Many of them also work in their communities, and they are inspiring. They added the fuel to my fire, my desire to serve.”
Talking to Jetty, it is difficult to realize that she earned her degree only months ago. Her confidence and compassion belie her youth. She understands that she has a role in history.
“While I work intimately with the virus, I cannot help but be humbled and so grateful for my role in healthcare. I have cheered alongside of patients as they survived the disease, and I have been with them while they pass from it,” she said.
“I have grown more confident in caring for these complex patients, and have seen myself grow as a nurse in the face of such immense adversity,” Jetty said.
A song by Alicia Keyes, titled “Good Job,” sums up the gratitude that many feel toward Jetty and America’s frontline workers: “You’re the engine that makes all things go, and you’re always in disguise, my hero … I see your light in the dark, smile in my face when we all know it’s hard.”
The song’s positive message continues, “You’re doing a good job, a good job; You’re doing a good job.”
That good job is an incredible gift to our nation, our world.