By the time her friend came to the hospital in mid-March, Jennifer Dixon MSN ’20 knew he was in trouble.
The well-built man in his 40s had no history of health problems but was suddenly drawn to the brink of death.
“He struggled to breathe,” she says. “He was gray and pouring sweat. His oxygen saturation was very low. He had blood clots in his lungs. The mortality rate when you put all those things together —”
Her voice catches.
Dixon has been a nurse for more than two decades. She just completed her Master of Science in Nursing degree at the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work this spring, her remote classes and clinical training wedged between shifts as an ER nurse in rural Georgia. But with all her experience, she had never seen anything like COVID-19.
At the hospital, she was told that the highest-risk patients were seniors, smokers and people with lung conditions — “not healthy strong men and women my age,” she says. Seeing her friend was a complete shock.
Jennifer Dixon: Nurse Finds Hope Amid Pandemic
Unable to receive the critical care he desperately needed in the 10-bed emergency room, he was sent to a larger hospital with an intensive care unit. For days, Dixon resisted the temptation to call or check his online medical record. Instead, she sent him messages. A smiley face. A shining sun. “He’d send me one back,” she says. “Just letting me know he was still breathing.”
For weeks, she sent notes and felt her heart leap each time a reply came. Then one day, Dixon arrived at work and saw a familiar truck in the parking lot. “I pulled up next to him and he smiled at me,” she says. “I just sobbed.”
He still needed blood thinners and oxygen. He still felt short of breath. But Dixon’s first COVID-19 patient had survived.
In the weeks that followed, the USC-trained nurse treated many more people with the coronavirus. Some only needed oxygen and could stay in her tiny emergency unit. Others needed ventilators or more intensive care, and she transferred them to another facility in a bigger town.
Her ears and cheeks ache from hours in a tight mask. The stress weighs on her. She escapes for brief moments — cuddles and backyard romps with her kids, running on the treadmill with music on full blast. And although sometimes it’s hard to see, beneath the exhaustion and emotional strain, she’s happy.
“I wouldn’t do anything else but be a nurse,” Dixon says. “I think about how tired I am, but also how lucky I am. Because I love what I do.”