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Tales from Two Cities

Two students enrolled at the KU School of Nursing volunteered to go to cities considered COVID hotspots.

Hands wearing surgical gloves forming the shape of a heart

During the COVID-19 pandemic, nurses have been on the frontline and have been responsible for providing the bulk of the care for COVID patients. Two students enrolled in the University of Kansas School of Nursing volunteered to go to cities considered COVID hotspots and risked their lives to help take care of patients.

Here are their stories.

Photo of Ashley Arrowood.

Ashley Arrowood

Ashley Arrowood grew up in central Missouri. She graduated from Central Methodist University with her BSN degree in 2014, and in 2017 she enrolled in the KU School of Nursing’s DNP program. Arrowood wanted to go into nursing because she helped take care of her chronically ill father, who died when she was 10 years old.

“I was comfortable in hospitals and medical offices,” Arrowood said. “The environment was not stressful or anxiety provoking to me, but rather intriguing. While my father’s life was short, I feel like I am honoring his legacy by caring for others.”

When COVID-19 broke out in early 2020, Arrowood wanted to go where she was needed. St. Louis was dealing with more COVID cases than Kansas City at that point, and it was close enough to home that she could continue with her studies. Arrowood said the word that best describes working as a heath care provider during a pandemic is “disorienting.”

“Every day new protocols were being given for anything as simple as transferring a patient to x-ray to as complicated as running a code blue,” Arrowood said. “We were treating a disease that was evolving every day. New symptoms were being reported, new treatments were being studied. All of this on top of working in a new hospital system, with new co-workers, with just one day of training.”

Arrowood said the majority of patients in her care were from nursing homes. She said many of them had no family to check on them, so they were dependent on her for everything. She was told to try to limit her time with each patient to help minimize her chances of contracting COVID. But in July 2020, she began experiencing shortness of breath and was diagnosed with COVID. Although she is young and healthy, Arrowood became very ill and was placed in the ICU and was intubated to help her breathe. She eventually recovered but has lingering effects from her battle with COVID.

“I have cardiac dysrhythmias that may require an ablation,” Arrowood said. “I have growths on my vocal cords from the intubation that may require surgery at some point. I am losing my hair. I have PTSD from my time in the ICU.”

Arrowood said five months after her diagnosis, she is still tired a lot and has difficulty concentrating on her schoolwork.

“People who do not understand that recovering from COVID can be a long and arduous process,” she said. “They think it’s like an extended vacation, but that couldn’t be further from the truth.”

But Arrowood said after going through all this, she learned a valuable lesson. After seeing what a lack of family presence at the bedside did to her patients, and then experiencing it as a patient herself, she said as a nurse, she will do everything in her power to include a patient’s family in the experience.

“My mother told me about the agony of going days without hearing from a doctor or nurse practitioner, not knowing if I was still fighting the virus or if I had died,” Arrowood said. “I know I will take this with me in the rest of my career.”

Photo of Nayeli Bustillos.

Nayeli Bustillos

Nayeli Bustillos, a registered nurse with 10 years of experience and a student in the KU Schools of Nursing’s RN-to-BSN program, flew to New Rochelle, New York on April 11, 2020, to help care for patients battling COVID-19. New York was one of the nation’s COVID hotspots in the spring of 2020. Bustillos said she felt it was her duty to volunteer.

“This is what I signed up for when I became a nurse.”

As a student in the University of Kansas School of Nursing, she was working 12 to 18 hours a day at the Montefiore New Rochelle Hospital, only to return to her hotel room and log on her computer to begin her homework. Many nights, she admitted, she didn’t have energy for her schoolwork and would just fall into bed and cry about what she’d seen and been through at the hospital.

Bustillos staffed the acute dialysis unit at the hospital, which was overrun with patients since COVID-19 can cause kidney injury requiring dialysis treatment. Even if an individual has never had problems with their kidneys before, the disease’s progression can make dialysis necessary. In her regular job in Kansas City, Bustillos educates others on dialysis procedures for her employer, Fresenius Medical Care, a multinational company with ties around the globe.

During the day, Bustillos was too busy to reflect. Patients needed her help, and she concentrated on the task at hand. At night, back in her hotel room, she’d touch base with her parents and her boyfriend, sharing her day but not all the details. She didn’t want them to worry. But inside, she was suffering.

“It was among the most mentally challenging times I’ve ever experienced in my life,” Bustillos wrote in the journal she kept while she was in New York. “What I can manage is the busyness and chaos that fill the days ― it’s the nights that I struggle the most. It’s during this time that my mind has time to process the devastation that unfolded earlier that day. It’s during this time when it gets rough.”

Bustillos said it was hard to get used to seeing death every day.

“It was just very heartbreaking to go in every day and treat patients who were on ventilators. And the next day you come in, and they weren’t there,” she said. “I don’t think people have understood the severity of this pandemic unless it’s affecting their loved ones.”

Bustillos had initially volunteered for two weeks in New York. But when it was getting close to her two-week mark, she told her supervisor that the hospital still needed her help and asked to stay on another two weeks. She managed to keep up with her studies at the KU School of Nursing, although she said she sacrificed a few decimal points on her grade point because of her volunteer trip to New York. As balance, she said she gained confidence in her abilities. That confidence was one reason she plans to apply to medical school after her final 11 credits of nursing school are completed.

KU School of Nursing

University of Kansas Medical Center
3901 Rainbow Boulevard
Kansas City, KS 66160