There are many things that COVID-19 has taken away from today’s college students, but the pandemic has also presented new opportunities to learn and serve. For one PLNU junior and four 2020 grads, one of those opportunities has been serving with COVID Care Force, a new nonprofit founded by Gary Morsch, M.D., a Southern Nazarene University alum. 

Morsch previously founded the nonprofits Heart to Heart International and Docs Who Care. The vision of COVID Care Force is: “To quickly mobilize a group of healthcare professionals to deploy to hotspots and areas of critical healthcare staffing shortages due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The focus of this volunteer force will be to serve wherever the need is greatest, whether in urban areas, or in community hospitals across rural America.”

Serving as a Student: Kylee Wallentine

Kylee Wallentine is a junior international development major at PLNU and an intern with COVID Care Force. Wallentine started her internship on June 1, just two months after the organization began its work. Her role is administrative – among other duties, she helps recruit medical professionals and determine where volunteers will be sent.

“I’ve gotten to see how a nonprofit starts from the ground up,” she said. “We have a small team, so I feel very close to them. I have gotten to see all of the parts – from raising funds to planning and communicating with volunteers and donors.” 

Wallentine spent the summer working at COVID Care Force’s headquarters in Olathe, Kansas, which is also her hometown. However, she is continuing her work in a part-time role now that she is back in school and living in San Diego. 

“It’s been really exciting to find something I am passionate about doing and that makes me excited to work,” she said. “It’s something that makes me feel like I am making a difference. It’s also really been exciting to be able to connect other people with something they are passionate about.”

2020 Grads in the Field: Emily Stone, Emily Johnson, Lyra Loh, and Margot Diehl

Some of the people Wallentine has helped connect through COVID Care Force have been recent PLNU nursing grads. Emily Stone, Emily Johnson, Lyra Loh, and Margot Diehl are all 2020 grads who finished their college careers remotely and spent a portion of the summer serving. More PLNU students and alumni are expected to be volunteering soon as well. 

Stone helping with a COVID-19 blood test for a patient.
Stone helping with a COVID-19 blood test.

The first four PLNU grads to go heard about COVID Care Force from one of their nursing professors, Monique Sawyer, DNP, RN, PMHNP-BC. Diehl and Stone had previous missions experience – Diehl with her family and then in Tanzania during college and Stone on a LoveWorks trip to Ecuador. Johnson and Loh had been planning to go on a PLNU School of Nursing trip to Ghana this summer, but the pandemic rendered that impossible. Several of the nursing alumni had been involved with Ministry with Mexico at PLNU. They all had the desire to use their time and skills to help others.

Margot Diehl (20)

Diehl spent her volunteer time in Winslow, Arizona, where she spent three weeks doing contact tracing. Although the role didn’t have the newly licensed Diehl working in direct contact with patients, it did allow her to build relationships with patients, which is one of the reasons she chose nursing as her career in the first place.

“I wanted something in the medical field, but I also wanted to build relationships with people,” she said. Nursing fit the bill.

Margot smiling with her ID badge.
Diehl spent her volunteer time in Winslow, Arizona.

In Winslow, Diehl worked with patients from the Navajo nation. Each day, she called patients who had tested positive for COVID-19 to check on them. She also reached out to their close contacts as they monitored themselves for symptoms.

“Many people were very grateful,” Diehl said. “They said, ‘It’s so nice to know that someone cares.’”

Not all of her conversations with patients were just about symptoms. Diehl particularly remembered listening to a woman in the hospital who was crying and sharing with her that she had had a big falling out with her mother and sister the previous day. After she was released from the hospital, things weren’t yet resolved with her family, but she expressed her gratitude to Diehl for listening and being there for her.

Because some patients and families in Winslow lack basic necessities such as electricity and running water, Diehl and her team also helped connect those in need of food, water, or other support to appropriate resources.

“I learned about case management and the importance of public health,” Diehl said.

Diehl said that when she was in Winslow, there were many positive cases of COVID-19 and many cases that spread in multigenerational households. At the time, she said public health nurses and the urgent care were stressed, but the situation has since improved.

“I think in the back of my mind, I knew that public health was really important, but this solidified for me that public health can bring sustainable change to communities,” she said. “I’m actually thinking about going to get a master’s in public health now, which I hadn’t thought about before. I’ve also thought about doing long-term missions, and this experience really solidified how important it is to be involved in the community and how public health would be such an asset if I go this path.” 

Lyra Loh (20)

Loh’s interests are in pediatrics and community health, but before taking her boards and focusing on her job search, she went to serve. Ending her college career remotely, having a drive-through graduation, and facing dampened job prospects couldn’t keep Loh from pursuing her purpose.

“I am going to try to find what opportunities I can based on the needs right now,” she said. 

Loh headed to Gallup, New Mexico, on July 5, where she served at Gallup Indian Medical Center. Gallup Indian Medical Center is a 100-bed hospital where most of the nurses are temporary travel nurses. It is the only major hospital in the area but is still smaller than most of the hospitals in San Diego. 

Loh served as a volunteer nursing assistant in an outdoor tent area set up next to the hospital. She was able to use skills she had learned during her clinical hours at PLNU as she triaged patients. She took vitals, assessed why patients were there and how urgently they needed care, and helped determine if patients should be admitted or transported elsewhere.

“The word ‘scrappy’ comes to mind,” she said. “It was literally a tent in a back parking lot. But the medical staff there are doing amazing work.”

Despite working 12-hour shifts in the desert heat, Loh feels grateful for the experience.

“I liked working with COVID Care Force,” she said. “I liked their mission and serving alongside people who are already serving. The approach is long-term relief.”

Emily Johnson (20)

Working alongside Lyra was Emily Johnson. 

“It was comforting to know that I had other people from Point Loma there with me,” Johnson said. “It was a good opportunity to be involved in nursing and learn how nursing and hospital care had changed due to COVID and to experience that firsthand.”

One of the biggest changes COVID-19 has brought about for nurses and medical professionals is the personal protective equipment (PPE) needed and the amount of time required to prepare and change out PPE, Johnson said. Like Loh, Johnson spent her shifts registering patients, taking vitals, assisting nurses, transporting patients, and taking tests to the lab.

“It was tiring after 12 hours,” she said, “but I loved it.”

Johnson was a highly involved nursing student at PLNU. She was the communications director for Point Loma’s branch of the California Nursing Student Association, part of the pinning committee, and a teaching assistant.

“I had a really positive experience [at PLNU],” she said. “I loved the nursing program.”

Johnson appreciated how her time with COVID Care Force gave her additional experiences to add to her time at PLNU – experiences that were quite different.

Loh, Stone, and Johnson at COVID care force in in Gallup.
Loh, Stone, and Johnson all served with COVID Care Force in Gallup.

“Gallup had a completely different hospital system and patient population,” she said. “It opened my eyes to realities of nursing outside San Diego. The hospital where we worked was a trauma 3 center, which has less resources than a trauma 1 or 2, even though it was the only hospital in the area. It was good to see something so different from San Diego, especially since what we saw there is normal for a lot of smaller, more rural places.”

Emily Stone (20)

Like Loh and Johnson, Stone spent some of her time serving with COVID Care Force in Gallup, but that wasn’t her only trip. First, she accompanied Morsch and another physician to Mexico. 

Having been active in PLNU’s Ministry with Mexico, Stone was familiar with their first stop: Tijuana. She and her team spent time at the Missionaries of Charity House, which provides food distribution and a home for the dying — a place for men with terminal illnesses to receive care. Stone led morning exercises for the “abuelos” (Spanish for “grandpas,” which is what they called the patients), did rounds, packed wounds, and helped where needed.

“It was really cool to see how they welcomed everyone with open arms,” she said. “One guy was a drug dealer who kept escaping the convent, and they would always welcome him back when he decided to return.”

Stone’s group then headed to Mexico City to do a needs assessment, testing, and education with the Missionaries of Charity there.

“We got to see a lot of different ministries there — we got to see the ‘abuelas’ [grandmothers] and a home for profoundly disabled children,” she said. “The houses were very clean and well kept. The sisters didn’t go to nursing school or have medical backgrounds, but here they were providing this excellent service. It shows how you can be sustained in the Lord in that way.”

A week later, Stone headed to Gallup where she spent two weeks providing drive-up testing. 

Stone feeding a resident in Mexico City.
Stone feeding a resident in Mexico City their lunch after mass.

“We would get intake information, and then a provider would speak to the patient by phone and decide what type of test was needed,” she said. Then, wearing full PPE in the desert heat, Stone would perform nasopharyngeal testing.

Stone felt safe due to her PPE and training, as well as her previous experience working as a nursing assistant on a COVID unit with Sharp Healthcare in San Diego. But it didn’t mean the work was easy. “It was a little daunting that they had such high cases of COVID there,” she said. 

“Just eating lunch with my team, they listed all of these family members that had it. It was very eye opening to see how disproportionately affected they were.”

Being able to use her medical skills to help in such a needed way reinforced for Stone why she wanted to become a nurse. 

“It was nursing and mission work combined,” she said. “We were testing over 100 people a day. A lot of the people on my team didn’t realize I was volunteering until a couple days in. They were shocked I wasn’t getting paid and super surprised I would come on my own volition.”

Stone noted that many of the patients she saw for testing were very appreciative of her help and grateful that the test was free. She also enjoyed bonding with her team, many of whom belonged to the Navajo Nation, and learning about their lives and culture. There were also difficult moments.

“I was doing intake information when I had a woman come up by herself with six kids under the age of 12 in the back of the car,” she recalled. “Usually, we would just test the mom, but she came with a list of their names and birthdays for testing. Then I found out that her husband had died of COVID on Monday, and it was now Wednesday. The severity of this virus really hit me.”

Stone was grateful to see how the team worked to help the woman and all the others in need.

“Everyone who works at Indian Health Services is there because they are called to serve their people and their community,” she said. 

Looking Ahead

Diehl, Loh, Johnson, and Stone are now applying for jobs and preparing to begin their nursing careers. Some of them may opt to volunteer with COVID Care Force again if they can. In the meantime, Wallentine will continue to connect volunteers with opportunities to serve. There is still a need among the Navajo Nation and elsewhere.

Two nursing students next to a sign that reads: WIHCC Public Health Nursing
Wallentine continues to connect volunteers with places to serve in this time of need.

“We have relationships with a number of hospitals,” she said. “We’ve seen a lot of needs not already being met, so there will likely be a lasting need for volunteers.”

If you would like to learn more about COVID Care Force, please visit their website.

Christine is the editor of the Viewpoint magazine at PLNU.