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The Daily Tar Heel

From the class of 2021 to 2025, The Daily Tar Heel spoke to UNC students who reflected on their experiences throughout the last two years of the pandemic.

Chapter 3: ‘The importance cannot be understated’

For Hayden Hmiel, balancing school and a nursing assistantship in the COVID-19 unit at UNC Hospitals is difficult.

A fourth-year nursing student, Hmiel and his cohort were accepted to the UNC School of Nursing around Spring Break 2020, when the pandemic began.

He said the nursing school shifted gears toward coronavirus-related care and content. Working in the COVID-19 unit, Hmiel said he felt a disconnect between his experience at school and work.

“In terms of expectations, it has been difficult to understand like, yes, the outside world — especially our age group — has talked about how it’s really no big deal," Hmiel said. "'Everyone’s fine. You’ll get it and nothing will happen to you.' But then I go to work and I see all these people that are critically ill, and a lot of them have passed away.”

Going to school and learning the ideal version of health care, and then going to work and seeing the morbid side, puts everything into perspective in both a good and a bad way, he said.

“We learned in school — we basically have the shroud of ignorance that science was all everything and we know everything,"  Hmiel said. "But the way this pandemic has really taught us is that in the beginning, and even now, there are a lot of unknowns when it comes to taking care of these COVID patients because it impacts everyone so different."

Hmiel said he sometimes needs to take a step back and separate himself from work so he doesn't lose himself too much.

His experience as a nursing assistant, he said, has helped him understand the reach that nurses have and the power their expertise holds. Nurses are often the ones families come to for comfort and explanations when their loved ones are ill, which Hmiel said is something that should not be undervalued.

With nurses quitting the profession from burnout and lack of support, Hmiel said he hopes the pandemic can eventually help people realize that uniting resources around supporting nurses would benefit the health care system.

“Without them — the backbone of health care — it’s really hard to provide adequate care, because just alone on my unit, these nurses are usually having four to five patients, and there have been weeks where they have seven patients, which is just extremely unsafe,” Hmiel said. “I think the importance cannot be understated.”

Photo courtesy of Hayden Hmiel.

Click here to read the next part, Chapter 4: ‘Mom, it’s real’

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