Answering the Call

Students, Alumni Lend Aid During COVID–19 Pandemic

Publication Date: 05/12/2020

The World Health Organization (WHO) last year designated 2020 as the International Year of the Nurse. While WHO created the designation to coincide with the 200th anniversary of Florence Nightingale’s birth and Nurses Week, the act also was intended to highlight the contributions of nurses worldwide.

Since March, the coronavirus (COVID-19) has caused an unprecedented pandemic and sickened at least 3.6 million, killed nearly 260,000 worldwide and forced restrictions on millions of people in the effort to stop the virus spread, according to data collected by The COVID-19 Tracking Project.

Nurses are typically on the front line of care, playing a critical role in health promotion, disease prevention and delivering both primary and community care. They comprise more than 50 percent of the global health workforce, according to WHO.Billie Fortney in New York

“Even before the current pandemic, there was an effort at the international level to recognize the vital role of nurses,” said Dr. Barbara Haas, UT Tyler School of Nursing executive director. “The fact that so many of our students and alums are helping out in this pandemic means that we continue to fulfill our mission of producing professional and caring nurse educators. We are so proud of what they have done and what they will continue to do.”

What encouragement does Haas offer to those helping during this time? She reminds nurses to take care of themselves.

“It is your nature to give, but please remember to take – take care of yourself; take time to connect with loved ones; take heart that this crisis will end; and take pride in knowing that someone’s world was changed for the better today because you were present,” she said.


UT Tyler students and alumni are integral to multiple aspects of responding to this healthcare crisis, Haas noted. They serve as administrators and leaders organizing hospital efforts to meet the demand. They serve in communities and are developing and implementing disaster plans for various regions.

They also are caring directly for COVID-19 patients in ICUs across Texas and the country, and some even have volunteered to travel to the hardest hit regions to provide assistance to nurses in those communities.


Harris County – the Lone Star State’s most populous county – has reported the most COVID-19 cases with nearly 5,000 and the most deaths with more than 80, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services. Dallas County – the state’s second-most populous county and the eighth-most populous in the US – ranks second with more than 2,700 cases and more than 70 deaths.

UT Tyler alumna Hannah Pearson of Granbury works nights in the Medicine ICU at Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas. She transferred to the COVID-19 ICU after her managers asked for volunteers to serve once the pandemic spread across Texas. She said she felt drawn to volunteer because she is relatively healthy and doesn’t have family at home who would be at risk if she were to contract the virus.

“I have seen the sickest of the sick overcome many battles and am honored to be by their side through it all,” said Pearson, a 2018 BSN graduate. “I am fortunate to work with an amazing team at Parkland who takes extensive measures to maintain safety for both our staff and patients.”

Pearson arrives about one hour before her 12-hour shift begins at the hospital to don the appropriate personal protective equipment, which includes a durable body suit, gloves and facemask. She cares for COVID-19 patients on multiple measures of life support during her nightshifts – typically three to four nights concurrently. Her bedside nursing care consists of various tasks including head-to-toe assessments, medication administrations and blood draws.

Pearson said being a nurse means “going the extra mile for a patient and paying close attention to not only the big picture, but also the small details.”

“As an ICU nurse, I am proud to show empathy, love and hope not only to my patients, but also to their family and friends,” she said. “Being a nurse also means providing complete, compassionate care to any patient despite any diagnosis or challenge that may be present.”

A lifelong Dallas County resident, Pearson said she enjoyed the unique location and quality nursing program UT Tyler offered.

“UT Tyler prepared me for nursing not only academically, but also by providing incredible relationships with my clinical instructors and professors who I still speak with today,” Pearson said.

She also would like to thank the community for all of their support and encouragement for nurses during this time.

"We feel the love and appreciate it,” she said.


The pandemic has impacted US residents along the East Coast much harder. The state of New Jersey – the second deadliest COVID-19 state behind New York – now has seen more than 10,000 coronavirus deaths as the total number of cases climbs past 100,000. However, state officials report that they are finally seeing hopeful signs of the outbreak stabilizing.

Mary Harwell of Marshall worked in the Long Term Acute Care unit at UT Health East Texas in Tyler and volunteered to assist East Coast nurses. She completed a three-week travel assignment at Hackensack Meridian Health Mountainside Medical Center in Montclair, New Jersey. She returned to Texas on April 22 and began work on May 11 at CHRISTUS Mother Frances Hospital in Tyler.

In the middle of transitioning jobs, Harwell said she didn’t hesitate to say “yes” when her previous employer asked for volunteers to help in New Jersey.

“I believe God created me with a purpose and being a nurse is part of that purpose for me,” said Harwell, a UT Tyler Level 4 BSN student. “One of my greatest desires is to go on medical mission trips to help God’s creation, and I saw this as an opportunity to do just that.”

Harwell arrived at the New Jersey hospital just three days after she volunteered and worked 12-hour day shifts with a rotation of three days on and one day off. As a registered nurse with ICU/ventilator experience, she assisted local staff caring for COVID-19 positive patients on breathing ventilators. Her “very busy and mostly blurry” days included providing patient feedings, medication administrations and assessments, all while visiting with family members and communicating with doctors.

“The staff members I was blessed to work with at the Hackensack Meridian Health Mountainside Medical Center are my heroes,” Harwell said. “They were holding it together even before help arrived. I will forever be impacted by those incredible people.”

Harwell said being a nurse means that she “promises to shine God’s light into the darkness.”

“To me, being a nurse also means that I promise to hold the hand of the dying,” she said. “It means I will support my fellow nurses. It means I will stand up when others can’t.”

Harwell said she overcame personal struggles in order to be where she is today. She thanks UT Tyler faculty for being supportive along her educational journey.

“I was actually told I would never go to college because I was unable to be educated, but God had different plans for me,” the mother of three children said. “Even before this pandemic, my professors have supported me every step of the way. They have truly been awesome.”


Few locations have been as hard hit as Queens, New York – deemed the pandemic’s initial “Ground Zero” among New York City’s boroughs. About 47,000 cases and 3,300 deaths have been reported in Queens alone out of the nearly 174,000 cases and 14,000 deaths in New York City, according to the NYC Health Department.

Granbury residents Billie Fortney and Ashley Morris-Pelkey are inseparable. The duo met in college while obtaining their undergraduate nursing degrees, and they have been tackling life together ever since. They both are enrolled in the UT Tyler Master of Science in nursing program. When overwhelmed healthcare workers needed help, the best friends answered the call in the only way they knew how – together.

They volunteered through a hiring agency that assigns volunteers to hospitals. Signing a 21–day contract with only one day off, they ironically ended up at the same location – Elmhurst Hospital in Queens, one out of 14 hospitals in the New York Health System. Fortney and Morris-Pelkey each worked 13–hour day shifts on various floors, caring for up to six critically-ill patients at a time, Fortney said.

“There have been times when I have come back from the hospital, cried and thought, ‘I’m so glad I have Ashley with me,’ because I don’t think I could have done this alone,” she said.

Morris-Pelkey agreed. “This experience has been like a whirlwind. I was definitely nervous-cited,” she said, adding the phrase is one her daughter coined to describe when someone is “part nervous and part excited.”

Fortney said all of the nurses performed ICU-related care tasks, including how to properly sedate someone on a breathing tube and when and how to turn over a ventilated patient in their bed to promote proper breathing and circulation. The pair completed their assignment – which lasted from April 3–25 – and returned to Texas under a two-week quarantine.

"When we first got there, the situation was like a war zone and a little overwhelming,” said Fortney, who specializes in medical–surgical and telemetry nursing. “The hospital was busting at the seams, and it’s still packed. We would get thrown into different situations, and we’re all teaching and learning along the way.”

The first week after they arrived, every 47 minutes the hospital’s “Code 700” was called, which meant a patient’s heart stopped beating. Each hospital floor lost anywhere between four to 15 patients daily, and staff saw high mortality rates – up to 85 percent at times – for patients on ventilators, Morris-Pelkey noted.

They both agreed the situation is now improving, and the measures the state implemented to stop the spread of the virus, such as social distancing and the use of protective face masks while out in public, are working.

“I feel like there’s hope,” said Morris-Pelkey, an ICU nurse. “Things are getting better, and we’re seeing more patients on the road to recovery. I’ve said from the beginning that if I can save just one person, this experience would be worth it.”

Now, the “COVID-19 experts” are excited to share their knowledge back home with fellow Texans and appreciate the support UT Tyler has given them.

“All the faculty have always been very supportive,” Fortney said. “You can tell they really care about students’ success. We want to give a special shout out to Dr. Parker, Dr. John and Dr. Duke. They have been on our side since Day 1.”