Nurses who met in college lean on one another through it all

Preparing for a career tops the list of reasons to attend college, but there’s another side to the journey that’s just as fundamental for happiness: Making friends.

College friends look forward to seeing each other in classes and on campus. They eat together, share laughs and help each other study for exams. They listen to each other’s problems and celebrate one another’s success. For many students, friendships made in college last a lifetime.

Three University of Vermont alumni who work as nurses in New York City hospitals feel extreme gratitude for their friendship, forged their first semester in college, especially now as they navigate life through the COVID-19 pandemic. Meredith Bridges, Alexandra Carrick and Marlies Gaul spent almost every day together during their four years at UVM, graduating in 2016.

“We met our freshmen year at UVM through our nursing classes and became friends almost immediately. We shared similar schedules, spending every day together in Rowell, the library, Davis Center and UVM Medical Center,” said Gaul.

Four years later, the trio continues to spend innumerable hours together as roommates in New York City. Now, more than ever, they appreciate their shared history, common experiences and companionship. They look forward to sitting together on their apartment’s roof-top patio, decompressing and recharging from their work on the health care front line. Here, they share their experiences working during the pandemic and their appreciation for their friendship.

Marlies Gaul, Acute Care Nurse, general surgery floor, NYU Langone Health Care

Our floor became a dedicated COVID-19 unit on March 19. In the beginning there was a lot of fear and uncertainty, but all of my coworkers shared the same mindset that no matter what we were facing we would all carry each other through it.

One of the hardest things for me was often feeling helpless and not being able to alleviate patients’ suffering. With surgical patients, you see them recover because of your interventions and good care. The typical day on our floor involves drain and wound care, ostomies, pain control, monitoring intake and managing fluids and antibiotics. With COVID-19 patients, it often felt like my interventions were not making a difference.

Another challenge for me was the experience of a lot more death and dying than ever before in my nursing career. I’m proud to know everyone on my floor worked tirelessly to keep these patients at the end of life as comfortable and well supported as possible especially when they were not allowed to have family present. I know so many of us coordinated calls and FaceTimes with families and I’ll take the gratitude those family members expressed with me for a long time. I never could have imagined being an essential worker on the frontlines during a pandemic, but my hope is to take some positive from this and grow stronger as a nurse and person from it.

All three of us often speak very highly of our experiences at UVM and the College of Nursing and Health Sciences. I think so much of nursing is learned beyond the textbooks and I really encourage nursing students to take advantage of each clinical rotation and the senior practicum. I will always be grateful for my experience as a student nurse extern at UVM Medical Center, which helped immensely in my confidence and abilities moving into the role of registered nurse.

I love living with Alex and Meredith and I don’t think I would have made it through this without them. We share similar challenges and support each other through it all. No one relates better or truly understands like a fellow nurse so I’m so happy to always have them to vent to. We are forever grateful UVM brought us together! 

Alexandra Carrick, Pediatric Trauma/ Intensive Care Unit (ICU) Nurse, New York Presbyterian Columbia University Irving Medical Center 

Typically, we have patients experiencing orthopedic, post-op neurosurgery, trauma and respiratory distress, ranging in age from newborns to 20 years old. At the beginning of March, our first COVID-positive patient was a young teenager with chronic medical issues. She was critically ill and cardiac arrested multiple times, but she ended up going home at her baseline.

From this patient on, we were designated the COVID unit because the medical directors figured our "normal" census would be low because non-essential surgeries were starting to be cancelled. The adult hospital across the street began filling up rapidly, and our nurses volunteered to work on the adult side because they were so overwhelmed.

When New York Presbyterian realized that kids were not being as affected by COVID as much as adults, we transformed into an adult ICU overnight. We had patients who were 25 years old with no past medically history critically ill, maxed out on ventilator settings with failing kidneys and blood clots forming in their lungs and limbs.

It was terrifying to see people my age so sick from a virus we knew absolutely nothing about. Guidelines and treatment pathways changed daily and it seemed like we were chasing our tails.

We did not lose a single patient and I believe that is because we were able to keep up with our usual nursing ratios of 1:1 or 2:1. Our staff was able to identify problems and intervene quickly.

I felt very validated as a nurse throughout this whole experience. I became a nurse to help people during some of the worst times in their life and due to my team's hard work, we returned a father back home to his two-year-old son and a graduate student back home to his family in Lebanon.

The experience was also extremely isolating. New York City, the city I love, was no longer. The streets became empty, the subway cars were barren, and all my non-health care friends fled the city in search for a safer place. I was unable to see my family, with whom I am so close with, for over five months. But most of all this experience made me appreciate the things I take for granted every day — being squished in a full subway car, meeting a friend for dinner, giving someone a hug.

Meredith Bridges, Surgical Intensive Care Unit (ICU) Nurse, New York- Presbyterian Weill Cornell Medical Center

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit New York City, it was like a tidal wave. Patients came pouring in and a vast majority of them required ICU care. The day it was decided our surgical ICU would take COVID patients, we transferred out all our patients who did not have the coronavirus and within 24 hours we were completely full with 20 intubated, extremely sick COVID-positive patients. These patients were and are some of the sickest patients I have ever cared for.

In the beginning, it was chaotic on the unit. We were just running back and forth from room to room, charting when we had a couple spare minutes, drinking water occasionally and trying to wrap our brains around what was happening. While caring for a COVID-positive patient, we have to wear an N-95 mask with a surgical mask over it, eye protection, a hair covering or bouffant, a standard isolation gown and gloves. There are days I leave work with the backs of my hands rubbed raw from washing them and using hand sanitizer so often.

Not only was I overwhelmed at work, but also just living in New York City and the extreme changes that were happening and the uncertainty of the future was a lot to take in.

What helped me the most was talking to my coworkers and roommates about it all, and knowing that they were going through the same thing as me was really comforting. As a nurse you learn to compartmentalize your feelings and leave the heavy stuff at work, but I found that I couldn’t always do that. Sometimes we have a good cry about it all and afterwards feel a little lighter. Looking back, I feel extremely proud of we came together to care for patients and how we all helped each other through one of the craziest times in our lives.

PUBLISHED

08-10-2020
Janet Lynn Essman Franz
Nursing alumni who are best friends from college.
Alex Carrick, Meredith Bridges and Marlies Gaul, UVM nursing class of 2016, live together in New York City, where they work in different hospitals. (courtesy photo)