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USM nursing professor on treating COVID-19 and teaching through her own diagnosis

Image of Nicole Gibbons in protective fear

Before treating COVID-19 patients, nurse Nicole Gibbons wears a kind of armor.

She pulls on and plugs in life saving gear, equipment that includes double gloves, a hooded protective suit and an air hose that connects to the back of her head. 

“It has a breathing unit,” Gibbons said. “I’m very well protected.” 

But Gibbons — who is also an adjunct professor in USM’s School of Nursing — could not live in that gear. Last November, while treating a patient in another part of the hospital, she was exposed to COVID-19.

And she caught it. 

At home, Gibbons endured severe body aches, fatigue, nausea and intense headaches. She couldn’t nurse. And though everyone at the university would have understood if she needed to take time from her classes to regain her health, she worried about her students.

“I figured, ‘I’m not contagious to them,’ she said. “I am on Zoom in my home.”

She told her co-teacher about her illness. Then, she kept the news from her students and logged in at class time.

“I didn’t want them to worry,” she said later, brushing aside any praise for teaching while infected. “It’s ok. I made it. I just taught anyway with the headache.”

“I slept right after, let me tell you,” she added.

Months later, she feels fine. And though she had worked for 25 years in Maine Medical Center’s intensive care unit before COVID-19 arrived, the disease has changed her.

She has an even greater appreciation for the medical teams she works alongside and a deeper appreciation for the role of families in each patient’s recovery.

Before the Pandemic, she felt very close to her ICU patients.

“It’s a very intimate relationship,” she said. “The patients are so sick that they can’t do anything for themselves. We help them in their darkest days.”

With COVID-19, patients are cut off from visitors.

“We don’t have the ability to have the families in there,” she said. The disease can also move unpredictably, shocking both the families and the caregivers.

“Sometimes it’s so fast,” she said. “You don’t see that they are going to take a bad turn, and all of a sudden they do.”

For the hospital staff, teams create a sense of camaraderie and caring. Rarely is she helping someone manage without help.

“You’re not really alone,” she said. “They support you, mentally. They can see if you’re having a hard day or hard time. It makes you very connected with the people you are working with, the doctors and the nurses and the respiratory therapists, the CNAs and the pharmacy people.”

Last summer, she was waiting in her car outside a local coffee shop when she saw a man fall. She hopped out alone to give aid and discovered that he had stopped breathing.

She helped the man, administering CPR until emergency workers arrived.

“I do CPR a lot at work,” she said. “But I didn’t have my team. You normally have five people in the room with you, helping you. It makes you very connected with the people you are working with, the doctors and the nurses and the respiratory therapists, the CNAs and the pharmacy people.”

Today, having been fully vaccinated, she looks forward to strengthening the other teams in her life, to reconnect with her family and once again teach all of her classes in person.

“I am lucky,” she said. “I feel good now. Like all of us, I just need to hold on a little longer.”