A Penn State World Campus nursing student is getting a crash course in crisis medicine working in one of Guam’s three hospitals during an island-wide shutdown.

Katie Francis, who has lived in Guam for the past two years with her Navy husband, has been a nurse for more than a decade. She is working on the nurse educator option of the Master of Science in Nursing that is offered online through Penn State World Campus. Francis said she uses her nursing education skills to help train new hires, including traveling nurses who have come to the island to help with the pandemic.

A nurse is seeing wearing a face shield and mask

Last spring, the U.S. territory in the Pacific weathered the first wave of the pandemic and life went back to normal. But starting in June, the island’s three hospitals have “pretty much been inundated,” Francis said. The 212-square-mile island, which has a population of about 170,000, has had 91 deaths and nearly 6,000 reported cases of COVID-19, as of November 11.

Francis works in the intensive care unit at the private Guam Regional Medical City. The other hospitals on the island are a military hospital and a government hospital that is the primary destination for coronavirus patients. But with the government hospital at maximum capacity, the hospital where Francis works has opened a unit to handle some COVID patients as well.

Working as a nurse during the pandemic has meant “lots of challenges,” Francis said. “But it really has pulled the health care community together and improved communication between the two hospitals.”

Francis said Guam’s remote location makes it difficult to recruit staff, ensure reliable delivery of supplies, and medevac critically ill patients off the island to Hawaii — an eight-hour flight — so they can get access to specialists and acute care. 

Aside from her three 12-hour day shifts and runs to the grocery store, she spends most of her time at home, she said. Her husband, a chief on the USS Oklahoma City fast attack submarine, recently returned from a three-month overseas deployment.

Being locked down gives her more time for her school work, said Francis, who had never lived outside Orlando before moving to Guam.

“It’s a good use of time,” she said. “It makes me feel a lot more productive since I’m spending a lot more time at home.”

Working as a nurse during the pandemic has given her a greater sense of purpose, Francis said.

“COVID-19 has changed so much about how nurses do their job, but it has also highlighted the compassion and care that we provide,” she said. “I’m proud to be a nurse and of the work that our profession does every day around the world.”

Francis said she has been touched by “little things — like you go through a drive-thru in your scrubs and people thank you. That usually happens to my husband. It’s flipped our roles a little bit. It’s nice to be able to help.”