ROBINS AIR FORCE BASE, Ga. -- December 2019 promised 2020 would be a year of progress and excitement for 1st Lt. Leah Bagley, officer in charge of search and extraction in the 116th Medical Group, Detachment 1, Georgia Air National Guard (GA ANG), as she graduated as a nurse practitioner.
It was to be the “Year of the Nurse and the Midwife” — a campaign designed by the World Health Organization, according to their news release on May 24, 2019.
Word of the COVID outbreak was circulating her healthcare circles and cases began emerging in the United States. Although Bagley was a newly certified nurse practitioner, she continued work in an emergency room in Moultrie, Georgia, due to the extensive need for bedside nurses.
At the height of the initial onslaught, Bagley was called up as a Guardsman to serve on active orders to assist in Albany, Georgia, one of Georgia’s largest hotspots, from April to June. After augmenting at one of Albany’s hospitals, she served at a testing site nearby — another of the GA ANG’s COVID responses.
Nurses such as Bagley universally are called to perform selflessly for others’ well-being.
She saw a lot. One account was like a scene in a WWII movie, as she hand-pumped oxygen to a patient for the better part of an hour. Something mechanical had broken in the patient’s ventilator, and a spare one was hard to find, according to Bagley.
She spoke with patients, checked IVs, enacted updated medical procedures, organized and encouraged nursing staffs and supported worried family members.
Bagley felt helpless, according to a recent interview. All her medical training and she couldn’t seem to slow anything down, couldn’t even convince some of her own family of the medical realities she was living day in and day out.
But what she did affected those around her. It was she who requested patients have a moment to say goodbye. It was she who conducted a small “pinning” ceremony for a newly graduated co-worker between shifts at the Albany hospital, as the new nurse did not receive the honor during the pandemic.
She contributed her educational background to help decipher the daily updates and treatment plans from leading COVID researchers and to put them to use at the hospital.
“By understanding this research and being able to determine what was sound medical advice, we were able to push these interventions out during patient care to improve outcomes," said Bagley. She made a difference, and she wasn’t alone.
"It was also incredibly refreshing to work alongside our unit’s military nurses,” said Bagley. “There is an inherent trust that was incredibly palpable amidst the trauma and horrors that we experienced. I wouldn’t have survived without Capt. Melissa Poole-Dubin by my side, and I’m certain more than a few patients wouldn’t have either.”
Nurses of the Air National Guard are as prepared as one could be for a such a time as this.
“We have extensive trauma and disaster management training from our military training requirements,” said Bagley. “And, when paired with our extensive civilian educations and backgrounds as ‘civilian airmen,’ we become extraordinarily qualified for this type of response.”
Bagley, like so many nurses and medical staff, offered hope. She offered companionship when disease control dictated loved ones couldn’t visit their sick. She offered strength from within.
“I have grown exponentially as a person in this last year,” Bagley said. “I have seen coworkers and peers do exceptional things. I have had incredible support and have been able to support others in a way that I’ve never been able to do before. I have grown into a stronger leader and enhanced my communication skills in a way that only this type of year could hone.”
Though the Year of the Nurse is ending, nurses are still vitally important.
“Nurses and other healthcare providers will be looked to for their professional opinions,” said Bagley. “Nurses must take the time to do independent research in order to effectively educate and advise those around them. The actions of nurses matter. Setting an example matters.”
During 2020, Bagley managed to get her doctoral degree in nursing practices on top of everything else. Her capstone project centered on nurse stress — an issue made much worse with COVID, according to Bagley.
The things Bagley witnessed and experienced are now something for her to change: practicing mindfulness, combating compassion fatigue, and encouraging stress mitigation for other healthcare workers.
“Nurses must be taught effective stress management strategies with the space to cope with the trauma of 2020,” Bagley said. “Even if you aren’t able to do everything you love, finding short moments to devote to yourself is crucial.”
“Please, take a moment to thank a nurse and provide support in any way that you can because this fight is far from over,” she added. “Check on your friends, families, peers, and acquaintances. One conversation can change everything.”
The Year of the Nurse and Midwife campaign was timed to what would have been Florence Nightingale’s 200th birthday. Nightingale, a British social reformer, is commonly known as the mother of modern nursing. She made incredible strides in hospital practices, decreasing death rates during disease outbreak and war, while overcoming personal obstacles.
Bagley is one of the many who express a Nightingale spirit. These are the ones who live to make change for the better, who strive against the odds and still believe there’s a better way.
“When I think of my peers,” Bagley said, “All I can say is that nurses are incredibly resilient, innovative, and true heroes.”
“When we think of this year, try not to regard it for how upsetting it was, but try to find ways to regard it with motivation,” offered Bagley. “Tomorrow is never guaranteed, and we have an opportunity to honor those we’ve lost by enjoying the life we have.”
As Nightingale put it, “Live life when you have it. Life is a splendid gift -- there is nothing small about it.”