The Heart of the Frontline By Samantha Wagner This article appeared originally in the Fall 2020 issue of Frontiers Magazine.
In January of 2020, few people would have believed that a global pandemic was months away from radically changing the way people worked, spent recreational time, and sought medical care. In a matter of months, businesses closed, cities paused, and medical workers entered the spotlight as the frontline heroes. As an ER nurse for Spartanburg Regional Healthcare System, Alyssa Sherrill ’14 is one of those heroes.
Her calling to the medical field, however, predates America’s national need. A caregiver and servant leader at heart, Alyssa’s desire to serve others started in high school, flourished in her years at Spartanburg Methodist College, and actively shapes her professional success now.
Alyssa’s interest in nursing began when she was in high school after her grandmother, whom she calls Nana, was diagnosed with a terminal illness that required almost full-time care. Alyssa watched as her mother managed work, raising a family, and caring for Nana. For a teenage Alyssa, it felt only natural to help. She spent time caring for Nana and keeping her company and when her own mother required surgery several years later, she stepped in to care for both women. “I was nursing without realizing I was nursing!” she laughs. “I was a secondary caregiver and then a primary caregiver and I was happy to take some of the stress and worry from my mom.”
This early experience prompted her to consider nursing as a future career, but it was her mother who suggested she attend Spartanburg Methodist College’s campus orientation. She did and determined that SMC was where she wanted to attend. Enrolling as a commuter student, Alyssa fell in love with the family environment of the campus and the way her professors personally invested in her studies. While she considered other career paths, she came to realize that nursing and “serving behind the scenes” were her true calling.
From volunteering in the Spartanburg community with her service fraternity Kappa Sigma Alpha to being an SMC cheerleader and serving as a presidential ambassador of the College, Alyssa built a résumé focused on serving others. When it came time for her to transfer to the USC Upstate Mary Black School of Nursing, the process was seamless, with all of her SMC credits transferring to USC without issue. She credits the ease of her transfer to the partnership between both schools. “SMC sponsored an informational day for those of us pursuing nursing degrees. They partnered with the USC Upstate Mary Black School of Nursing to make sure that all of our questions were answered. Because of that session and my advisers, I was able to plan out my classes for the last two years of my degree,” says Alyssa.
Her preparation, hard work, and dedication paid off when Alyssa graduated with her Bachelor of Science in nursing in 2016 and accepted a position as an ER nurse with Spartanburg Regional Healthcare System (SRHS).
The ER is not an easy work environment outside of a global pandemic. ER workers are exposed to the physical, mental, and emotional trauma of their patients on a daily basis, handling the crises of others with compassion and professionalism while also managing the stress of a constantly changing environment. “The ER ages you,” Alyssa acknowledges. “It’s a lot of trauma and watching others experience trauma, but I love the work. I love being there for my patients when they need me most, and I like that every day is different. In the ER you never know what you’re going to get.”
The pandemic brought this reality into sharp detail. Adaptability, always an important trait for an ER worker, suddenly became critical. As COVID-19 cases rose in the upstate of South Carolina, Alyssa watched as her personal and professional life changed rapidly. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the ER adopted a no visitor policy. While a practical policy, the change put additional responsibility on the frontline medical workers. “Patients normally receive support, comfort, and encouragement from their family and friends,” says Alyssa. “With a no visitor policy in place, nurses are choosing to go that extra mile to be both a medical professional and an emotional support system for the patients. While it is a joy to serve others, the additional responsibility, when added to the personal worry that we as nurses might be putting our family and friends at risk of a COVID-19 exposure, is a lot. Traumatic emergency cases in particular have been harder without family members present to comfort the patient.”
The stressful realities of life in the ER, however, pale in comparison to the kindness and overwhelming generosity Alyssa and her fellow nurses have experienced from their fellow medical professionals and the members of the Spartanburg Community. Local restaurants and businesses partnered to provide meals and snacks for frontline staff on a daily basis. Community members wrote encouraging notes on the sidewalks in chalk, mailed thank you letters, and held prayer and worship sessions on the hospital grounds. Donations ranging from stress-relieving craft projects to masks to hand sanitizer and other supplies frequently appeared at the hospital, and the medical community worked together with an inspiring unity across all departments and specialties.
“Fellow nurses were checking in on each other and asking how everyone was doing,” says Alyssa. “A nurse I had never met sponsored me through an ‘adopt a nurse’ program. Not only did she take the time to send me encouraging messages, but she also took the time to realize it was my birthday and to send me a card and gift.”
In the midst of the pandemic, the kindness of strangers has been a beautiful and consistent source of inspiration and strength.
Although the future remains uncertain in the wake of the pandemic, Alyssa’s next steps are sure. She graduated in August of this year with her Doctor of Nursing Practice degree having earned the title of Family Nurse Practitioner. The achievement is incredible and is a fitting accomplishment for 2020 – the World Health Organization’s Year of the Nurse. Although her title has changed, her focus has not. She continues to serve the people of Spartanburg with poise, efficiency, and kindness – traits she learned from her mother, from SMC, and from years on the job.
Although there are still bad days, Alyssa faces them with the same hopeful attitude. “Being able to make a difference right now in the community, as a nurse, is a huge thing. During the hard days, I lean on my faith and my community and I trust in the belief that tomorrow will be a better day.”
Throughout 2020 that belief has been, and will continue to be, a source of hope. Tomorrow will be better – thanks in no small part to heroes like Alyssa today.