On the Front Lines

Sarah Brady, a graduate of The Citadel’s inaugural nursing class, joins the COVID fight as a first-year nurse

Sarah Brady, CGC ’19, returned home after a grueling 12-hour hospital shift on Memorial Day to find her living room decorated with string lights and candles. Her boyfriend, Petty Officer Paul Waring, had been busy with preparations while she was at work. A dozen roses and a cake adorned a makeshift dinner table, and sitting unmistakably on top of the cake was an engagement ring. The 27-year-old nurse had taken care of a COVID patient that day and was still wearing her scrubs when Waring got down on one knee. “I was crying,” she said, “and I told him I had to go take a shower.”

That was, of course, after she said yes.

Brady, a Summerville native, graduated from Clemson University in 2015 and took a series of health care jobs in the Charleston area before she decided to become a nurse. She enrolled in The Citadel’s inaugural nursing class after her mother discovered the program through a radio advertisement. That was 2017. Some two years later, degree in hand, Brady packed up and moved to Groton, Connecticut, where Waring, a submarine electrician mate, was stationed.

In Connecticut, Brady took a job at Yale New Haven Hospital. The 45-minute commute from Groton was of little consequence; Brady was more interested in the hospital’s reputation for being a preeminent medical facility. Two weeks after a 19-week orientation for new cardiothoracic intensive care nurses, the pandemic hit. The young couple was cut off from society and unable to network, make new friends or go to the gym. As a first-year nurse, Brady found herself on the front line, helping prepare for the crisis.

“There was a lot going through my head,” said Brady. “I was a new nurse. It was stressful. We stopped doing elective surgeries, and our patient census was low. It was like the calm before the storm while we prepared to receive COVID patients, and we didn’t know what was going to happen.”

As the virus slammed the Northeast, Brady found herself confined to work and home. At the hospital, she regularly checked her email for news and protocol updates. “There was so much information coming in from the TV and the news and the internet and what I was getting at work, so when I wasn’t at work, I didn’t watch the news—I didn’t want to read anything else,” said Brady. “I relied on the information I was getting at work, because I knew it was coming from the CDC and reputable sources. I trusted the hospital to be doing the right thing.”

In the early days of the pandemic, there was a lot of uncertainty, even from the most seasoned hospital nurses. “No one, obviously, had ever been through anything like this before, but as time went on, and as we began to care for these patients, we weren’t getting sick,” said Brady. “Our PPE was working—we had the proper resources. Our hospital took care of us, and that was comforting.”

As some of the intensive care units transitioned to COVID-only ICUs, Brady’s cardiac unit expanded to include other surgical ICU patients, and some of those patients were COVID positive. So, for example, a patient with appendicitis and COVID might be monitored for the appendicitis while being treated for the virus, and Brady was one of many who were called upon to treat patients in isolation rooms.

“In those rooms, you had to make sure you clustered your care very well. You didn’t really want to be in there all day because that would just increase your exposure time, and you had to use teamwork,” said Brady. “You would bring all the supplies that you needed, and if you needed something else, you had to reach out to one of the other nurses to help you.”

On many of those days, like Memorial Day, Brady returned home and warned Waring that she had been caring for a COVID patient before hurrying off to shower and scrub down. New Haven saw a rise in COVID patients in April. Now, with the fall underway, those cases have waned, allowing Brady and Waring to join a social sports league, like the dodgeball league in Charleston where they met.

She is also planning a wedding. The date? “In March, hopefully,” she said. “We need for the pandemic to calm down.”