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South College graduate shares front lines experience in New York during COVID-19

June 3, 2020

South College graduate Rachel West returned to campus to share her firsthand experience with the COVID-19 pandemic in New York City, where she learned that teamwork and critical thinking are as important as classroom instruction.

“The experience taught me that healthcare takes a team,” West said. “Physicians, residents, interns, nurse practitioners, physician assistants, respiratory therapists, pharmacists, dietitians and nurses all worked together to help each patient. As a new grad, navigating the level of care required for the ICU, it was beneficial to be a part of a team.”

West graduated from South College’s Physician Assistant program in December 2019 and had plans to work for a local medical office. When the COVID-19 pandemic led to layoffs before her first day, West decided to go to New York City to help.

South College Physician Assistant program graduate Rachel West speaks to a group of students about her firsthand experience treating COVID-19 patients in New York City at the college’s Parkside Campus on June 2. Starting April 1, West spent five weeks working in the intensive care unit at Manhattan’s Bellevue Hospital during a period of high demand for healthcare workers.

“I didn’t want to sit around when I knew I was healthy, knowledgeable and could make a difference,” West said.

West went through Krucial Staffing, a company that specializes in disaster relief, and was assigned to work in the intensive care unit at Bellevue Hospital starting April 1. The company provided a travel stipend and hotel lodging.

“The hotel was filled with other healthcare workers,” West said. “For five weeks straight, I would work at the hospital, come straight back to my room, sleep, get up and do it all again.”

West originally committed to 21 days with the hospital but decided to stay another two weeks because the need remained high for healthcare workers.

Upon returning to Knoxville, West spoke with students about complications and treatment for COVID-19 patients.

Grueling schedules and determining an accurate diagnosis amid multiple possibilities challenged the young physician assistant, but nothing proved more difficult than handling patient family communications entirely over the phone.

“My education at South College included simulated experiences where we had to explain to family members what happened when a patient passed away,” West said. “I never thought I’d be leaning on those skills as much as I had to in New York.”

At Bellevue Hospital, loved ones were not allowed inside the ICU unless the patient was expected to pass within 24 hours. That required West to communicate through daily phone calls with family members who were hurting and full of questions.

West ended up immersed in the front lines of a pandemic, a situation she never could have imagined just months prior, when her plan was to begin her career in orthopedics.

“Our physician assistant program is designed for students to become well-rounded healthcare professionals,” said Marissa Turner, a South College faculty member and clinical coordinator. “Our graduates can be successful in orthopedic offices, emergency rooms, surgical offices and as Rachel showed, intensive care units. That flexibility can open many doors after graduation.”

About South College

South College is a private institution regionally accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC) to offer programs at the doctorate, educational specialist, master’s, baccalaureate and associate levels. Contact the Commission on Colleges at 1866 Southern Lane, Decatur, Georgia 30033-4097, or call 404-679-4500 for questions about the accreditation of South College.