Here’s Your Diploma, Now Here’s Your Mask

ROCHESTER — For every college student, starting a new job after graduation can be nerve wrecking and stressful. Now add a global pandemic that has drastically changed society and starting a new job just became even more challenging, especially for those going into the medical field.

Sydney Cowie and Marissa Wall met in their freshman year of college at SUNY Brockport where they were both a part of the nursing program. After four long years of staying up late together to finish term papers, pulling all-nighters to study for exams, and attending clinicals, Cowie and Wall never thought that their first job in a hospital would be during COVID-19.

Marissa Wall and Sydney Cowie pose after graduating from SUNY Brockport — Images courtesy of Instagram

Cowie and Wall have been on the same exact career path all through college and accepting jobs at Strong Memorial Hospital was no different. They both accepted positions at Strong in March of 2019 before graduating in May. Then in November of 2019, they both started working as a level one registered nurse.

Cowie and Wall work on the same floor of the hospital but Cowie works in the pediatrics emergency department and Wall works in the adult emergency department.

They started to hear things about coronavirus on the news and social media when it first began around January, but much like the rest of the public, they didn’t know what to believe.

“From my experience at the hospital, the virus was not affecting kids the same way it was affecting most adults. Since I only see kids come in and out of my department, my perception of the virus in the beginning was that it wasn’t a big deal,” Cowie said.

However, Cowie explained that after a conversation with her supervisor telling her that the coronavirus is not going to go away for a while and it’s going to drastically change our society, she quickly realized the importance.

Wall and Cowie both said that back in March when the hospital started all of their COVID-19 precautions, things were extremely different than they are now.

“When the virus started, everyone was so scared of getting it at the hospital that no one came to the hospital. We opened up the gym and put more beds in there because we figured that we wouldn’t have enough room for people, but everyone was so scared that no one even came,” Wall said.

“It was like unheard of that we had zero patients in the emergency department for a long period of time,” Wall said.

At this point, Wall and Cowie had only been at their first job in a hospital for four months, and technically still in orientation.

“We went from having about 40 people in our waiting room and sick people everywhere when we started in November, to literally 10. So trying to learn how to be a nurse was so much harder because we didn’t have any patients to train on,” Cowie explained.

In the beginning months of the pandemic, Wall explained how hard it was to keep up with the rules of what they were and weren’t allowed to wear.

“Since everything was new and confusing, every single day the rules were changing. One day we would come in and our bosses would say we only needed a surgical mask, the next day we would need two masks, the next day we needed to wear headgear, the next day you didn’t headgear. It was so confusing,”

Now about nine months later, the hospital has set rules on what kind of masks and gear that nurses must wear.

“Before the pandemic, you would never wear a surgical mask into a patient’s room unless they were immunocompromised or they were already sick and you were going to catch something from them. Hospital workers would never wear an N95 mask unless they had a rare and highly contagious disease like tuberculosis,” Wall said.

Image of N95 respirator

According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, an N95 mask is a respiratory protective device designed to achieve a very close facial fit and very efficient filtration of airborne particles. The edges of the respirator are designed to form a seal around the nose and mouth.

Now nurses at Strong Memorial wear the same surgical mask for 12 hours and nurses are only allowed one N-95 mask.

“We come in, grab one our shift and wear it the entire time and throw it out when we clock out. For the N-95 masks we are only allowed one. There are bags at the hospital that we put our N-95 mask in and write your name and your department on your mask and you put it in the “dirty” bag, then someone will come in and wash the dirty ones,” Cowie said.

Being a nurse during COVID-19 has also affected life outside of work for Cowie and Wall.

“It was weird in the beginning because we had just started our first job and trying to make friends and do things with coworkers outside of work was just not a thing because of all the restrictions,” Wall said.

“Some of my family would get really nervous with me being around in social settings because I work at the hospital during all of this,” Cowie explained.

Wall understands that starting a new job during a global pandemic is going to be hard for anyone, not just medical workers, but it is important to thank the people that are risking their lives everyday at work.

“I’ve had strangers see me in my scrubs and thank me for my service and I always make sure I do the same for anyone working in public places right now, not just nurses and doctors,” Wall said.

Working during COVID-19 was not what Cowie and Wall had thought their first job would be like. However they are adapting to every change and trying to make the best out of this new experience.

“When we were in college, we would stay up late talking about school and what working in a hospital would be like and we never thought it would be like this, but we are really lucky to have each other during all of this just like we did in school,” Cowie said.