Nurses Fighting COVID-19: DNP Nurse Anesthesia Student Reflects on His Experience Working in a COVID-19 Unit

June 30, 2020

James Gibson credits his mom with sparking his nursing career. A licensed vocational nurse (LVN), she encouraged him to pursue the calling after he graduated from high school. Following in her footsteps, Gibson became an LVN at the tender age of 19 and began his career at the Department of Veterans Affairs.  “In the beginning, nursing and I was an arranged marriage that I fell in love with after many years,” he says.

After a period of academic and career struggles and a bout of self-doubt, Gibson once again found his footing in 2011. “I went through a major maturation process,” he explains. “I became laser-focused on accomplishing my original goal of becoming a registered nurse.” He decided he would not stop until he got to the top – which for him was a career in nurse anesthesia. “It’s the top of the nursing profession in terms of prestige, hemodynamic knowledge, and performing under extreme stress,” he says with pride. Currently in his second year as Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) student in UArizona Nursing’s nurse anesthesia program, Gibson expects to graduate in May, 2022.

"James has a calm, quiet leadership presence," says UArizona Nursing Doctor of Nursing Practice Nurse Anesthetist Program Administrator Kristie Hoch, DNP, CRNA. "As the class President he has worked to create a cohesive class despite the challenges of COVID. James has an inner strength that will serve him well in his future nurse anesthesia career."

For the past several weeks, Gibson has been working as a registered nurse in a COVID-19 unit in Southern California while also pursuing his studies. We caught up with him recently to learn more about his experience on the frontline of the battle against the deadly virus.

What is it like to be on the frontline of the COVID-19 pandemic?​

​I work in a cardiothoracic ICU that is also a combined ICU. When the pandemic hit, the hospital developed a COVID unit and all ICU staff floats to the COVID unit. In the beginning, it was scary for many different reasons. You wonder if you’re going to contract the virus and give it to my family, or do I have it already and am I going to give it to one of my patients? I remember after the first two shifts I had in the COVID unit, I went home to sleep and woke up with what I thought was a sore throat. After my life flashed in front of my eyes, I realized it wasn't a sore throat, but instead, my mouth was really dry. Two weeks into the pandemic, I got a call from my mom, who was in the hospital for an ongoing chronic issue. She was crying, saying she had the virus. She thought it was a death sentence for her. That was a challenging time for me. She has since tested negative, but the effects the virus had on her is long-lasting. I realize the individuals who don't take this virus seriously are those who have not seen what it can do to you, how you can walk into the hospital and be on a ventilator for 45 days. Or you can walk into the hospital, and the next time your family sees you is to say goodbye. If more people experienced what frontline workers experience, there would be more following the CDC guidelines to keep us all safe.

"I take pride in being a Wildcat Nurse. The UArizona nurse anesthesia faculty has been excellent and makes us all feel supported in a rigorous program," ~ James Gibson, UArizona Nursing DNP student


Can you share your perspective of the challenges nurse anesthetists face during this crisis?​

​I start my clinical training in December, so I do not know from firsthand experience yet. However, nurse anesthetists are the airway specialists. As members of the anesthesia team, we are at the head of the bed managing the patient's airway. We are responsible for intubation -- inserting a breathing tube in the airway -- suctioning secretions from their airway, and removing the breathing tube when indicated. All these procedures are high-risk aerosolizing procedures, which we know is the number one way this virus spreads through droplet particles. We are at an increased risk when managing the airway of a COVID-19 confirmed patient or non-infected patients where their virus status is unknown.

What is involved with your work in the COVID unit?​

​During my nights working in the COVID unit, I am usually assigned the sickest patient. Often, the patient will be on several continuous medication drips for sedation, pain, and two to three other medications to support the function of their heart and blood pressure. As the bedside nurse, I am responsible for titrating all these drips based on the patient's response. Many of these patients, at some point, suffer injuries to their kidneys and need bedside dialysis. Because they are too unstable to have dialysis, we place them on continuous renal replacement therapy, or slow continuous dialysis. So in all, we are responsible for continuously assessing the patient, administering other medications, managing the ventilator, managing the continuous renal replacement therapy, drawing blood work, collaborating with doctors and respiratory therapists, communicating with patient's family, bathing the patient, and through all that trying to follow stringent infection control practice not to catch the virus. Somewhere in there, we also have to deal with our fears, feelings, and mental health.

What does it mean to you to be a Wildcat Nurse?​

​I take pride in being a Wildcat Nurse. The UArizona nurse anesthesia faculty has been excellent and makes us all feel supported in a rigorous program. In a few years, when I am working as a nurse anesthetist, I will feel pride to say I obtained a doctoral degree from the University of Arizona.

What does the future hold for you?

I want to enjoy the fruits of my hard work and provide for my family. I want to work hard to become a great nurse anesthetist. I want to find a way to use my knowledge, life experience, and education to encourage more people to do the same. I want to create a legacy for my family. I want to use my platform to fight for social change in this country. I have my work cut out for me, but I will keep doing what needs to be done. I read from a nurse anesthetist online recently that you can't be what you can't see. Hopefully, accomplishing my dreams can motivate others who look like me to know they can do the same.