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Nursing student describes first responder experience and first semester amid COVID-19

by Monica Smith

May 08, 2020, 9:00 AM.

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Carlos Vasco understands what it’s like to be a nurse, online student and patient.

As a first responder at Palmetto General Hospital in Hialeah, FL, Carlos Vasco knows pressure. He also realizes the effort needed to stay on top of his education. Enrolled in FIU’s online RN to BSN program, Vasco recounts his extraordinary experience being a nurse, an online student and a COVID-19 patient.

On the front lines, Vasco, also a flight paramedic with REVA, the world's largest international air ambulance and medical flight transport services company, has flown all over the world to assist with patients. His specialty is critical care. In January, things changed for him as he began his online RN to BSN program and juggled schoolwork with his hospital and flight paramedic schedules. By March, things were also changing rapidly at work.

“We were never expecting this to be so big,” Vasco speaks candidly. “We didn’t know this was going to be as bad as it is. We know that we’re in a developed country, but I don’t think, with all of the information we had, we could have stopped it. The virus was already spreading.”

Pandemic and exposure

By late March, Vasco saw hundreds of patients with symptoms of coronavirus. At some point he may have been exposed on the job. A call came from the hospital about the potential exposure. He worried even though he was asymptomatic. Then something changed. There were a couple of days he felt “off.”

“I didn’t have big symptoms. I just felt cold. I never had a temperature higher than 99.6. I felt tired like I was getting the flu. I immediately went to Dolphin Stadium to get tested. It took a week to get results,” he recalls.

When he got the letter, it sank in. He had COVID-19.

“My whole world paused. I worried about those I came in contact with—my mother and my asthmatic grandmother. I see them almost every day,” he says. “It was a horrible feeling, but thank God, everyone in my family is OK.”

Quarantine and online learning

Forced to quarantine for 14 days, he felt frustrated. A total of 11 colleagues, he heard, also became infected. As a first responder, he laments how hard he and his fellow nurses have been affected. Regardless, he wanted to be on the front lines to help. In the meantime, he focused on his online learning and the day he’d be cleared to “get back in the fight.” 

While quarantined, Vasco had an assignment he would not be able to accomplish because he had to submit a video of himself doing a diagnostic exam on another person. He called his professor, Maria Garrido, and explained his circumstance and she worked with him to modify his assignment.

“I love the fact that she went out of her way; she found a way for me. That’s impressive. You want people to be there for you, helping you be the best version of yourself. I got that from her,” he says.

FIU program: ‘a lift up’

Not content to settle, Vasco wants to apply to FIU’s nurse anesthesia master’s degree program when he completes his BSN to become a certified registered nurse anesthetist.

“I always dreamed of going to FIU. Now I am, online,” he affirms. “I see this program as giving me a lift up. The study material is hard, but I know it’s going to make me a better professional,” he explains and says that FIU was the only choice because of the program’s reputation. The program has garnered top rankings for 2020 including several Best Online RN to BSN Program in the nation designations. 

It’s the first time Vasco has ever taken any online college courses. He admits that sometimes it’s easy to procrastinate, but you have to stay focused. At 31 years of age, he also admits he was nervous about online learning, but planning helps, and the flexibility of online learning allows you to maintain a job.

“It’s not helping you to stay in place. You can do it. Little by little, you’ll get there,” he offers as advice to those considering the online RN to BSN program.

Back to work

Vasco was cleared to return to work at the end of April. He’s using his newly gained knowledge from his program to understand pathophysiology down to the cellular level, especially with regard to COVID-19. He understood signs and symptoms, but now understands the “why,” he says. For his flight paramedic job, he’s been fully briefed on the new patient “capsule” that will be used. He has yet to have a coronavirus patient on a flight.

“Nursing is not boring within a big city. Even now with the pandemic, I am lucky. I’m happy because I’m helping the country survive. We’re helping in this fight,” Vasco proclaims.

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