Care Through Crisis: Maverick Alumni Take on COVID-19
By The University of Texas at Arlington Magazine
Posted on January 28, 2021, January 28, 2021

Medical worker making heart with hands

UTA is a community that cares, and that remains especially true for our students and alumni who bring their skills, compassion, and hard work out into the world. Across Texas and beyond, thousands of Mavericks have stepped up during the COVID-19 response to show how we improve communities, especially in times of great need. Here are just a few of their stories.

Elisabeth Berglund
Nurse

After her capstone work in the College of Nursing and Health Innovation in April, Elisabeth Berglund (’20 BSN) saw a post on social media from a group called the Special Operations Medic Coalition. They were looking for medical personnel to staff a converted indoor football facility in New York City known as The Bubble, a site that can treat up to 280 COVID-19 patients with staffing by military and civilian health care personnel.

“It was a call to action,” Berglund says. “My dad encouraged me: ‘This country needs help, and this is what you’re trained for,’ he told me. I prayed about it and decided to apply.”

After her arrival, Berglund and other volunteers received personal protective gear, a rigorous orientation, and their new assignments of caring for patients cleared from more critical floors in a nearby hospital.

“It’s truly a team effort, and it is very rewarding to see our patients get better and go home to their loved ones,” says Berglund, who served as a paramedic. “I feel UTA prepared me for this experience and for what’s to come in my nursing career. I am grateful for my professors, my family, my faith, and for the opportunity to help people heal.”

Amy Bird
Nurse Practitioner 

As a nurse practitioner at Texas Pulmonary and Critical Consultants, Amy Bird (’03 BSN, ’09 MSN) is used to treating patients with severe breathing difficulties. But COVID-19 has added complexity to her daily life.

“We’re the gatekeepers of COVID testing—we identify who gets tested and who doesn’t,” she says. “Because of that, the hospital staff nurses and respiratory therapists are relying on us to keep them safe by identifying COVID-positive patients quickly. It’s a lot of pressure.”

On the home front, the longtime nurse’s husband and children moved out during the beginning of the COVID response to mitigate the risks of her job. They kept in touch with calls and video chats before they developed a plan to bring the family back together.

“When you have a patient who has beaten the odds and they’re definitely on their way home, that makes everything worth it,” she says. “One life is worth everything.”

Colten Philpott
Emergency Medicine Resident

For Colten Philpott (’14 BS, Biology; ’15 MHA; ’16 MBA), his sister, and their mother—all alumni of UTA—COVID-19 isn’t their first brush with a deadly viral outbreak.

Dr. Philpott’s mother, Tamara Holt (’96 MSN), a nurse practitioner, and his sister, Twila Green (’13 BSN), an ICU nurse, were working at Texas Health Presbyterian in Dallas in 2014 when the hospital had a patient with Ebola. They both still work there, while Dr. Philpott is a first-year emergency resident at JPS Health Network in Fort Worth.

“This isn’t our first rodeo when it comes to crazy viruses that make the world catch on fire,” he says.

At JPS, Philpott credits the medical staff for being nimble and adjusting to new challenges at Tarrant County’s largest safety-net hospital and one of the area’s primary testing sites for COVID-19. From reshaping the emergency room to providing enhanced training for using respirators, JPS physicians have helped train him to provide care for affected patients in a safe environment.

“It’s been an incredible medical education,” he said. “It’s the best of both worlds in that first-year residents are getting to see and help COVID patients, but under the care and supervision of our attending physicians.”

UTA was a great place, he says, for a pre-med student.

“It’s everything you want academically. UTA has a strong biology program and is well-respected in Texas during the medical school application cycle. Our med school dean at Texas Tech says he gets three or four Mavericks every year that he is really proud of.”

Lauren Elizondo
ICU Nurse

Lauren Elizondo (’05 BSN) is a registered nurse for Baylor Scott & White, where she has worked as a floating ICU nurse for the last 15 years. While the hospitals she serves all saw an increase in COVID-19 patients over the first several weeks of the outbreak, her job, she says, has remained the same.

“Gowning up and doing contact precaution is not new to nursing,” says Elizondo, who lives in Arlington. “I feel safe and secure because of the protective steps that are in place.”

The hardest thing so far is that the protective precautions create a literal barrier between her and her patients.

“To care for a patient, touch is a very big thing,” Elizondo says. “Our time in the room can be very impersonal when you’re trying to talk through a mask and limit the time you’re in there. It distances the patients from you.”

Elizondo is, above all, grateful for the job she still loves.

“My job is very fulfilling,” she says. “I’m thankful that I’m still needed—that I still get to work and take care of people.”

Courtney Kinnear
ER Charge Nurse

Courtney Kinnear (’16 BSN, ’19 MSN) is an emergency room registered nurse at Texas Health Presbyterian of Rockwall, where she also serves as charge nurse. Part of her job is assigning nurses to patients in a nine-bed ER that sees about 60-80 patients a day.

Since the start of the COVID-19 outbreak, her day-to-day role has changed. The hospital has reorganized its emergency room, added negative pressure rooms, and taken over a seven-room pre-op area to use as a respiratory hallway.

“The hardest part is the unknown,” says Kinnear, who lives in Royse City. “We don’t know when it’s going to hit our area, how hard it will be, or how long it will last. When this first hit our country, it was hard watching the brave nurses, doctors, and the physician assistants and nurse practitioners I work with have so much anxiety and fear of what was to happen.”

Kinnear says encouragement from the community is bringing her the most joy right now.

“The amount of support people are showing for health care workers is amazing,” she says. “The nursing profession seems to have renewed respect from the community.”

Jocelyn Zee
Critical Care Physician

Jocelyn Zee (’04 BS, Microbiology) spends 12-hour shifts attending to critically ill patients, some of them diagnosed with COVID-19, in the intensive care unit at JPS Health Network in Fort Worth.

To her, the risks to her personal health from exposure to contagious patients are inherent to her role and responsibilities as a critical care physician.

“I don’t give my health a second thought when I’m at home,” Dr. Zee says. “Faith is a huge part of my being, and with faith comes personal responsibility.”

The pandemic has changed some of Zee’s routines at the hospital. She now wears enhanced personal protective equipment, including powered air purifying respirators that she jokes make her and her colleagues look like cone heads or storm troopers. She also wears two and sometimes three or even four pairs of gloves at a time.

She says she’s grateful that JPS leadership provides its workers with appropriate protection and is inspired by the bravery and fortitude of her patients.

“I really feel for our patients,” she says. “This whole experience has been surreal. It’s not business as usual.”

Zee, the daughter and sister of Mavericks, enrolled at UTA in 2000 when she was 13, finishing her undergraduate degree at an age when most students are just beginning college.

“All my UTA memories are extremely fond,” says the 2016 UTA Distinguished Alumni Award recipient. “So many professors were instrumental in my development and learning. I have total love and appreciation for my education at UTA.”

Sarah Van Leuven
Nurse

For Sarah Van Leuven, a master’s student in the online family nurse practitioner program, the toughest part about working as a nurse right now is seeing her coronavirus-positive patients so sick and alone.

Van Leuven lives in Fallbrook, California, and works as a nurse in the COVID unit at a San Diego hospital. New hospital regulations prohibit patients from receiving visitors, part of an effort to limit the spread of the virus.

“You see these really sick people who are all alone,” she says. “As much as we are there for them and care for them, we are no substitute for somebody’s family or loved one.”

Van Leuven enrolled in UTA’s online master’s program in 2019, attracted by its flexibility, high-quality reputation, and affordable tuition. Becoming a nurse practitioner, she says, will give her the opportunity to earn more money and enjoy a more routine work schedule. The online classes—along with regular study sessions via video conference with one of her classmates—have helped Van Leuven maintain a sense of normalcy during the pandemic.

"I’d never had this feeling of being part of something that is bigger than myself,” she says. “I really feel like I am making an impact when I go to work."

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