By TYLER ELLYSON
KEARNEY – The worldwide coronavirus pandemic is unlike anything Maci Kroupa has experienced before.
COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, has infected more than 2.7 million people across the globe, killing over 192,000, according to Johns Hopkins University.
In the United States, there are more than 800,000 confirmed cases, including 2,124 in Nebraska as of Friday morning. Around 50,000 people have died from the disease in the U.S.
“It can be scary thinking about it,” Kroupa admits.
At the same time, it’s reassuring.
For Kroupa, a pre-nursing student at the University of Nebraska at Kearney, seeing the heroism demonstrated by health care workers only strengthens her decision to join the profession.
“I’m so inspired by everyone who is working longer shifts, under mountains of personal protective equipment, and they’re still doing their best to advocate for patients,” she said. “They go to work every day knowing they’re putting their own health at risk, but they still want to be there for their patients.”
Kroupa faced a similar scenario last month when UNK made the transition to remote learning to slow the spread of COVID-19.
She could have stayed in Kearney, where she lives with friends in an off-campus house, while finishing the semester. Instead, the 19-year-old sophomore opted to return home and work as a certified nursing assistant.
“I just felt like I needed to contribute and give some relief to my fellow CNAs,” she said. “I needed to be there.”
A native of Hadar in northeast Nebraska, Kroupa has been a CNA at the Heritage of Bel-Air skilled nursing and rehabilitation facility in nearby Norfolk for two years. She works on an as-needed basis, typically during the spring, summer, fall and holiday breaks or on weekends.
The job is quite different these days.
Because of the coronavirus outbreak, health care facilities across the state placed restrictions on visitors and Heritage of Bel-Air staff are required to wear protective face masks and glasses.
“It’s a really tough time right now,” said Kroupa, adding that the situation is “taking a mental toll” on everyone.
‘WE’RE THERE TO HELP’
UNK freshman Preston Smith is also working as a CNA during the pandemic.
The pre-nursing student is back in his hometown of Gothenburg, where he’s been employed by the local hospital since May 2019. He’ll work full time at Gothenburg Health through the spring semester and summer.
“It’s a lot different from when I first started,” he said, noting the precautionary measures in place to protect both patients and employees.
Like Kroupa, Smith says the coronavirus outbreak doesn’t impact his decision to pursue a health care career.
“It’s what we sign up for – to help people,” the 19-year-old said. “We’re there to help people during those hard times.”
Dealing with infectious diseases is part of the job, he added.
Smith, whose mother Loretta is a nurse at the Hilltop Estates care facility in Gothenburg, plans to work in emergency medicine and eventually become a nurse practitioner.
In addition to serving the public, the career is attractive to him because it offers stability and opportunities for advancement.
“There’s always going to be a job in nursing,” Smith said.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median pay for registered nurses is $73,300 per year and the profession is expected to add more than 370,000 positions – 12% growth – from 2018 to 2028. Demand for nurse practitioners, nurse anesthetists and nurse midwives, who earn a median salary of $115,800, is projected to grow by 26% over that time, according to the bureau.
‘IN IT FOR THE COMPASSION’
Sarah Jones, assistant director of UNK’s Department of Health Sciences, hasn’t heard from any students second-guessing their educational path since the outbreak started.
“Generally, people go into health care because they truly want to make a difference, help people and save lives,” she said. “They’re in it for the compassion. Most people who go into health care want to be the ones on the front line.”
One setback, though, is health care facilities are suspending job shadowing and observation opportunities for students until the pandemic passes. UNK also canceled its health sciences summer camps for high schoolers, but is looking at virtual options that allow students to explore these careers.
Kroupa, a graduate of Pierce High School, was able to job shadow at Faith Regional Health Services in Norfolk, Kearney Regional Medical Center and CHI Health Good Samaritan in Kearney during her time at UNK, giving her a “bigger picture” of the profession.
“UNK has done a great job of preparing me,” said Kroupa, who has observation hours in the emergency room, operating room, labor and delivery and medical-surgical. She also participated in undergraduate research focusing on tick-borne diseases with professor Julie Shaffer, chair of UNK’s Department of Biology.
Kroupa will start nursing school next semester at the University of Nebraska Medical Center College of Nursing’s Kearney Division, located in the Health Science Education Complex on the UNK campus. The 2+2 program allows her to graduate in four years with a Bachelor of Science in Nursing.
“It’s definitely a challenging program, but it’s so worth it in the end,” said Kroupa, who hopes to become a director of nursing one day.