SALISBURY, N.C. – Holly Casper and Amber Yow knew that nursing was a personal calling that required compassion, dedication and selflessness in addition to sharp clinical skills. What they didn’t expect was having to tackle their first jobs during a global pandemic.

Casper and Yow graduated from the Rowan-Cabarrus Community College nursing program in December 2020 and landed jobs in the intensive care unit at Atrium Health Cabarrus shortly thereafter. Since then, they have been on the front lines, caring for the hospital’s most seriously ill patients.

Holly CasperAlthough COVID statistics and vaccination rates have seen improvement, Casper, Yow and their co-workers are still seeing critically ill patients and witnessing deaths due to the virus while keeping an eye on emerging variants and what the future may hold.

“We knew nursing was hard, but we did not sign up for a pandemic that we are learning about as we go,” Yow said. “This is not something you can learn or prepare for. COVID-19 created an entirely different nursing life and has given us experiences we never expected, but it also has shown us how strong we are.”

Nurses must implement more critical thinking when it comes to COVID patients, Casper said, which can lead to increased stress and burnout.

“These patients are really sick, and it is frustrating to feel you are out of options for them,” she explained. “It is heartbreaking to see so many people die – young and old. We try so hard for our patients. We try everything, but with COVID sometimes everything just isn’t enough.”

Enforcing visitation restrictions has been a difficult, but necessary, task. And since loved ones cannot be in the hospital by a COVID patient’s side, nurses have taken on the role of connecting families through video and audio calls.

Amber Yow“A major challenge is family members still claiming that COVID is not real as we are caring for their loved ones and watching them decline due to this horrible virus,” Yow said. “Personally, I just tell myself I am doing the best I can. I try to leave work at work. Coming home to my daughter is what really helps me de-stress. She is my motivator. On a bad night, I just think about her and remember that everything I do is for her.”

During the pandemic, hospitals have experienced shortages of medical supplies, personal protective equipment, and even medications. Staffing shortages also have presented challenges, leaving more work for those who are on duty.

Casper is thankful for the training and preparation she received at Rowan-Cabarrus before taking on her first nursing job during a pandemic. “I feel like the changes we had to endure during our learning processes and the compassion our instructors showed helped us prepare for the unknown,” she said.

Even though their first year on the job has been riddled with stress and heartbreak, the two young nurses are proud of the resilience they have shown and the job they are doing. While it is never easy to witness any patient suffering, they agree that a sense of pride and new appreciation for teamwork has emerged from their experience.

“This has been the most challenging time that many of us will ever experience, and we are grateful for our graduates who are sacrificing of themselves to serve others,” said Dr. Carol S. Spalding, president of Rowan-Cabarrus. “I am thankful to Holly Casper, Amber Yow, and the many frontline workers who are products of our programs.”