By Brandon Martin
The general feeling of patriotism we all share on the Fourth of July may hit a little harder this year for Tonya Waddell, a dialysis nurse, who volunteered to serve her country on the frontlines against the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic this year.
Waddell, a Ridgeway native, said she found out about the opportunity through her employer, Fresenius Kidney Care, which was recruiting volunteers through texts and emails to serve in hotspots around the country.
“After I received the messages, I knew I couldn’t just sit and not do anything,” Waddell said. “So I jumped at the chance to try and make a difference.”
Luckily, Waddell said her five children were at the age that they could mostly take care of themselves, except for her 13-year-old who stayed with Waddell’s other daughter in Virginia Beach. So she packed her bags and took off to work at big city hospitals in Massachusetts, New Jersey and Illinois.
“Being in those big cities during a quarantine was great because learning how to navigate that traffic would have been crazy,” she said, adding that she really enjoyed seeing all the new architecture. “The buildings in Chicago were amazing. The pictures don’t do it justice,” said Waddell.
She didn’t have long to enjoy the scenery though, as she soon found herself working 10-14 hour work days in some of the most infected areas of the country. Waddell said one hospital had about 200 positive patients in their care.
If the volume wasn’t overwhelming enough on it’s own, Waddell said normal dialysis procedures were complicated because of how COVID-19 “interacts with the blood.”
As a dialysis nurse, the bulk of Waddell’s work revolves around the kidneys. Dialysis nurses work to return a patient’s kidneys to a functioning state after they have suffered kidney failure. They do this through two types of dialysis: hemodialysis and peritoneal dialysis.
In both of these cases, a dialysis nurse attaches the machine or equipment to the patient, assesses the patient’s vital statistics before and after their dialysis procedure, monitors the procedure as it occurs, and records relevant notes and data about the process.
Waddell said she saw many cases where COVID-19 had caused acute kidney injury (AKI) in patients. AKI is a sudden episode of kidney failure or kidney damage that happens within a few hours or a few days.
According to a study by the Feinstein Institutes for Medical Research, patients with respiratory failure were most likely to develop AKI, with 89.7 percent of patients on mechanical ventilation developing AKI compared to 21.7 percent of non-ventilated patients. Of the COVID-19 patients with AKI, 14.3 percent required emergency dialysis to remove the body’s waste and toxins.
The problem with doing these procedures on COVID-19 patients is that the virus “causes the blood to clot,” Waddell said, adding that the clots are causing heart attacks and strokes.
“It’s scarier and more tedious. You really have to watch what you are doing because we really don’t want to lose a patient.”
If clotting happens, Waddell said there are certain steps that have to be taken. First, she said an advance report must be drafted and the patient’s doctor must be notified. The doctor will then make the decision to restart the procedure or not. Procedures typically take up to four hours, according to the National Kidney Foundation.
A study published in the Journal of the American Society of Nephrology suggests that the kidneys may be injured when the coronavirus binds to a protein called the angiotensin-converting enzyme 2 (ACE2).
Waddell said much is still unknown about how COVID-19 interacts with the blood but that she returns home with a wealth of knowledge and experience.
“It made me a better nurse. I loved getting out there and seeing the world. There is so much you can learn from textbooks but there is also a lot you can learn from meeting new people and experiencing new things. It’s something I’ll never forget,” Waddell said, thanking her friend and manager Ayme Currin for calling to check on her while she was away.
Waddell said she is leaving behind some friends that she met at the hospitals as well. In addition to the local nurses and doctors, she said she also made friends with healthcare professionals from Mississippi, Texas and New York, just to name a few.
While she said she will miss them, she’s glad to finally be home with her family who supported her while she was away.
“They like to tell me I am a Super Nurse,” she said with a chuckle. Much like a Super Nurse, Waddell is still trying to save as many people as possible. This comes with a stern realization.
“This virus is real. I’ve seen lives taken because of it,” she said. “I’ve seen the refrigerator trucks loaded with people who may not have had to die. I just want everybody to take the precautions. Use the hand sanitizer; do the social distancing. Give it some time and we can return to the loving community activities that we are used to. Until then, let’s all try to save as many lives as possible.”
Tonya Waddell, a dialysis nurse, recently returned after a healthcare deployment on the front lines to serve others.