Georgian alumni on the frontlines of the pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic is only one reason Freda Figueira will never forget the past year. She graduated from Practical Nursing at Georgian’s Owen Sound Campus, passed her licensing exam, and had a baby.

Then in March, just as the pandemic was escalating, Freda began her first full-time nursing position in the Inpatient Mental Health Unit at London Health Sciences Centre.

“At first our patients couldn’t have visitors, which took away the support of loved ones,” she says. “They couldn’t go outside, had to eat meals alone in their rooms. And many were frightened and confused seeing staff in masks and face shields. They were trying to deal with such serious issues and now COVID-19 had made everything so much more difficult.”

Working in mental health is a calling for Freda.

“I learned at Georgian we need to look at things holistically, and our mental health is part of that,” she says.

My best days are when I’m able to really connect with my patients. For example, one patient didn’t understand what COVID-19 was. I personally took out my cell phone to play the news to show him this is real. When patients can focus on their own personal wellness, is when I feel like yes, I’m making an impact.

Nursing alumna Freda Figueira sits with her young daughter on her lap
Nursing alumna Freda Figueira (class of 2020) with her daughter Ebony
Paramedic alumnus Shane Ellis stands in front of his ambulance, in uniform
Paramedic alumnus Shane Ellis (class of 2017)

Shane Ellis, a 2017 Paramedic graduate, was on the job when COVID-19 became the sudden new reality.

“It changed everything really quickly,” he recalls. “It was very stressful for everyone, but we had our job to do.”

The people who called for us were counting on us.

Shane has cared for a number of patients with COVID-19 symptoms. Some of his colleagues have filled in at long-term care homes during outbreaks. And the pandemic has increased paramedic protocols such as COVID-19 screening questions for everyone on the scene whether the call is for a heart attack or a serious car accident.

“When you need us, time matters,” he says. “But we need to keep everyone safe, including ourselves. I have learned to ask the questions pretty quickly; it’s become second nature.”

Like all health-care providers, Shane and Freda perform their jobs wearing enhanced and sometimes cumbersome personal protective equipment (PPE). It can include gowns, gloves, masks, face shields, goggles – the combination dependent on the situation.

“The career I chose is a risk to me and to my family,” says Freda. “Whether it’s COVID or something else, protecting myself first protects everyone else, including my 10-month old daughter.”

It’s possible some of Freda’s protective equipment could have been manufactured by other Georgian alumni. Justin Johnson (Class of 2017) and Kyle Morton (Class of 2007) are Mechanical Engineering Technology graduates who work at MPC Molded Precision Components in Oro-Medonte.

During a few short and very intense weeks this spring, MPC pivoted from manufacturing mainly auto parts to making headbands and face shields to protect frontline and essential workers.

“We started March 23 and maybe a week later, we’d gone through the entire design process, had a patent and were preparing to kick off the tooling,” says Kyle. “It was a massive undertaking, but the entire team put in the hours needed. We wanted to get the product done quickly to help as many people as possible, so we did what we had to do.”

You could see the benefits. You may work 12 to 14-hour days but you might be able to save someone’s life if this works. It may even be your own family member, you never know. You always had that in the back of your mind.

Alumni Justin Johnson and Kyle Morton stand back to back in a manufacturing plant
Mechanical Engineering Technology alumni Justin Johnson (class of 2017) and Kyle Morton (class of 2007) at their workplace, Molded Precision Components

Prototyping, research and development had to ensure the shields were not only effective, but comfortable enough to wear day-in day-out. And their Georgian education provided a foundation. “To me, an important part of college was about time management and problem solving,” says Justin. “I could contribute because Georgian really taught me how to attack a problem and work through it. I’m really proud to be part of what we’re accomplishing here.”

It is a significant accomplishment. MPC has manufactured an astonishing number of shields – 27 million to date – keeping health-care and essential workers safe across Canada.

“It’s hard to put into words really,” says Kyle. “We worked with a lot of doctors, nurses, paramedics and others to get feedback. I was able to get recommendations from my own dentist. I had an appointment recently and saw how they’ve been able to open, in a small part, because of our shields. It’s given them some additional comfort they can go to work and be safe. It’s pretty humbling to be part of it.”

These alumni love their careers on the frontlines

Despite long hours, and at times, personal risk, fighting the pandemic has been overwhelmingly rewarding for all these Georgian alumni. “I have no second thoughts about my career,” says Shane. “This is what I signed up for. In fact, I’m now studying in the Advanced Care Paramedic program, while working full-time. I love this job. It doesn’t feel like work to me.”

“I wouldn’t exchange my position for anything,” agrees Freda. “It’s where I’m able to be at my best, to grow, share my experience and support my patients. Nursing is something you have to give from your heart, you have to care from your soul.”

Georgian alumni on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic was featured in the fall 2020 digital supplement of GeorgianView magazine.

GeorgianView Digital Supplement Fall 2020

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