BOSTON/WILMINGTON – Back in the winter of 2012, Jennifer Stewart was a key member of the Wilmington High School girls' basketball team, which won the league title for the first time since 1965 and advanced to the sectional semi-finals.
Before the playoffs started, the team came away with a big home victory over Melrose. In the latter part of the game, Stewart made a great defensive play, which in turn allowed League MVP Emily Crannell to bury a three-pointer, which eventually led the 'Cats to victory.
After the game, Stewart was interviewed by the Town Crier's Mike Ippolito, and what she said eight years ago is fitting to what she is going through today as a float pool registered nurse at Brigham and Women's Hospital, where she is currently working on multiple COVID Units, taking care of COVID-19 patients.
"It's not about me, but whatever I can do to contribute to the team," she said to Ippolito. "Whether it's rebounds or whatever, I am happy to do it. It depends on what the team needs that day. My role is sort of determined by those around me."
Now eight years later – her fourth as a nurse – the life-lessons that Stewart learned on the basketball court – as well as field hockey and softball fields – are truly paying off. She is right in the middle of the pandemic – sacrificing her own health to help those in need – people who have tested positive for the virus and who have either passed on, who are struggling to breathe and stay alive and then those who she has helped on the mend.
"This virus is extremely serious," she said. "COVID is an aggressive virus that targets the lungs. It does not target a specific population, any age group, race, gender or health status. Patients are becoming extremely sick and decompensating rapidly. The virus causes swelling of the lungs which can lead to fluid overload in the lungs leading to respiratory compromise. The most common symptoms we are seeing are high fevers, productive cough and shortness of breath. Patients are having respiratory compromise rapidly requiring acute levels of nursing and medical care."
Stewart was asked about her own personal thoughts on the virus and immediately said there's a lot of differences between it, and the common-flu virus which also is the cause for hundreds and thousands of deaths on a yearly basis.
"This virus is extremely serious and is not a typical flu," she said. "It attacks the body and the respiratory system and can have detrimental effects to the body. I'm seeing patients unable to breathe and gasping for air because of this virus.
“I have never experienced anything like this in my life and I have never seen an illness that is so deadly to a vast range of people. This illness should not be brushed off as a common flu because it is not. This is uncharted territory and it is absolutely necessary for people to follow social distancing guidelines and to stay at home."
During that 2012 basketball season, Stewart was not the best player on the team, but she played such an important role. That game alone against Melrose, she led the team in defensive blocks with four and rebounds with 14.
In high school, Stewart was the total package of terms of student-athlete – excellent in the classroom, team first always once she got between the lines. She also overcame a torn ACL in her left knee before her freshman year started before tearing her right ACL at the end of her freshman year. She wore a brace (sometimes two) for all three sports and was as they say "tough as nails."
That same attitude and mindset has stayed true today as a member of the Brigham and Women's Staff. She said since the virus has taken off these last few weeks here in the state, a "typical day" at the hospital is far from being anything but "typical."
"There is an eerie feeling walking into the hospital everyday," she said. "Only healthcare professionals and essential employees are allowed into work. No visitors and no family are allowed. I find out at the beginning of my shift which COVID unit I will be going to that day. There is an overall sense of anxiety among the staff as we do not know what is coming next. We do our PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) before entering a patient's room and can spend hours at a time in our patient’s rooms unable to breathe because the N95 mask prevents transfer of air in and out of the mask. It is exhausting and tiring being in that room, but our nurses are still providing the best possible care for our patients. We are their only physical contact during the day. They cannot have visitors or family to hold their hands during this difficult time, so we are their support system.
"We are also closely monitoring all of our patients, watching their vital signs and respiratory status and watching for signs of decompensation. We have the absolute best team at BWH taking care of these patients and we are fighting everyday to keep them as well as ourselves safe.
“My life right now is spent at the hospital working 60-plus hour weeks. I am isolating from my friends and family and truly devoting all of my time to my patients and the hospital."
From an athlete to a nurse, Stewart's message has been loud and clear, she is all about the TEAM. She had one other message to send to the readers of this story.
"My biggest takeaway to the public is to please stay home,” she said. “Your healthcare workers are working tirelessly to care for COVID patients and provide the best possible care. That patient could be you or your loved one, so please protect them and stay home and socially distance. This is real and it is here and your healthcare workers are working day and night to care for extremely decompensated patients.”