Abby Schulte

Yankton native Abby Schulte has always had a desire to work with people. Coming from a compassionate, sizeable extended family, her comfort with people and helping others was engrained at an early age.

Since Schulte was a child, she aspired to be a teacher. It wasn’t until her junior year at Yankton High School when one class changed her mind; her Advanced Placement Biology class taught by Dr. Angela Hejl swayed her in biology and medicine. It was then that she realized that the medical field was her passion. Her family also encouraged her to enter a field where she could care for others, emphasizing on one of her strong attributes.

After graduating YHS in 2014 and Augustana University in 2018, she found her place in the medical field as a Registered Nurse in the cardiopulmonary unit at Avera McKennan hospital in Sioux Falls. Here she works with many aspects of cardiopulmonary issues including pneumonia, influenza, COPD and heart failure.

“I chose nursing because I get to be with patients all the time and the caring interaction that you get to provide, that you’re with the patient through the whole process. You’re not there just for the diagnosis. You’re there from the beginning of figuring what the diagnosis is, getting them a diagnosis and helping them through it and managing the diagnosis, especially in the hospital,” Schulte explains.

Schulte is also training others in her field as a clinical instructor for Augustana University, taking nursing students to the hospital and pairing them with patients. She had a bit of time in her busy schedule to talk with me about her career and how the Covid-19 pandemic has affected her.

Like many others, the Covid-19 pandemic has affected her daily routine. When first hearing about the epidemic happening in other countries, she hoped it wasn’t coming to the U.S. After learning that it had spread and cases in the U.S. were rising slightly, she knew that Sioux Falls would be affected. Knowing that it would probably affect her floor since the condition is strongly respiratory, she became concerned, preparing herself for what she knew was coming.

As the staff prepared for the changes, management met with all the dayshift and nightshift nurses during morning line up to discuss the pandemic, procedure changes and policy changes. Additional staff training included preventative measures, wearing protective equipment and how to care for the diagnosed patients. She felt that management did a great job preparing them for the quickly approaching changes; staff had to brace themselves to be ready for anything.

Schulte started to notice the change at work in March, especially when staff was placed on travel restrictions to avoid exposure to Covid-19.

Nurses couldn’t take their normal patient loads as they had to spend more time getting in and out of protective equipment. Additional staff was needed to help clean and extra nurses needed to help others get in and out of protective equipment and to help sanitize. Part of their unit was isolated strictly for patients diagnosed with Covid-19.

She describes the protective gear, worn for all patients, including a mask and a face shield. When entering a Covid-19 room, nurses also wear a gown, gloves and either a PAPR mask or N95 mask. She’s experienced changes in the structure of her day. On a typical day before the pandemic, she would start off her day with coffee on her way to work and change into her work shoes when she arrived at the hospital. She laughs, “I’m kind of a germophobe that way in that my hospital shoes never leave the hospital.” She would head to her designated wing after receiving her patient assignment.

“After Covid, I still make my coffee,” she laughs. I laugh and think “smart girl!” Also an avid coffee lover, I understand the importance of a strong cup of get-up-and-go. Before entering the building, she goes through additional screening measures at the door. After getting her badge and sticker stating that she’s been screened in, she gets her mask that she will wear for her shift. She heads to her unit, slips on her work shoes, grabs her stethoscope, and gets her assignment. If she is assigned to the Covid-19 unit that day, she will also get her PAPR or N95 masks.

The structure of the day is primarily the same: caring for patients, helping transport them to procedures, coordinating care with the physicians and other disciplines, giving patients their medications, and answering questions. While visitors have been restricted to one person for all patients, the patients in the Covid-19 section aren’t allowed to have any visitors. Nurses have now taken on a mediator position to communicate with the patients’ families, a link between the patient, family and physician. They assist in relaying information and helping arrange phone calls via speaker phone with the physician so the family can still get the updates from the doctor even if not being present.

“It definitely changes the flow of your day, she states.” ‘It has also changed the way we communicate with some patients. We put iPads in the Covid rooms to help the patients communicate with the nurses.”

The nurses encounter various emotions as being a mediator and often see frustration in the family members as they just want to be with their loved one. “We feel for them, we wish we could have them there too. They’re sad, they’re scared and we try to keep the news as positive as possible and give them the best news we can, even if it’s ‘Well, we have no changes today.’ Some times that ‘nochange’ is the best news we can give them. That (the patient) isn’t getting any worse.”

The staff has become more comfortable with the condition, now having learned more about it, how it’s spread and how to treat it better. The nurses would joke with each other about how it previously seemed like there were daily changes, from how to treat the patients to the gear that they had to wear. It’s now become more consistent.

She believes that some of the procedures will stick and some of the policy changes are good. “Everyone wants normalcy right now, but I don’t think everything in the medical field will go back to normal. I think that’s the beauty of medicine, it’s always changing. I think Covid will leave some lasting changes in the field of medicine.”

She expands on her career and explains her favorite part about her job and the medical field. “As a nurse, I like doing procedures, doing something directly with the patient like putting in IV’s, catheters, NG tubes. I love working with my co-workers. I love working with all the disciplines at the hospital. I don’t just work with other nurses, I work with physicians, physical therapists, speech therapists, CNA’s and patient care techs. I get to work with everybody.”

“One of my favorite parts of my job is how challenging it is. The day is never boring, it’s always very interesting. Something is always happening, always keeping me on my toes which I love. You walk in and have to be ready to roll with it.” She laughs and explains that it’s taken her time to adapt to this. The change in being separated from her family was difficult. “I feel that the nurses really banded together and the whole hospital staff really was amazing about supporting one another.”

She credits to her family and friends for their support, not only in her career, but through the current situation. “My entire family, aunts and uncles, cousins and friends have all been a huge support,” she explains. “People have sent cards and called just to check in and it has meant the world to me. And I just want to say thank you to everyone.

I think that’s what everyone has to remember now with Covid. You can’t always physically be there with somebody, but you can always be there for someone, whether it’s a phone call or letters, and remembering to do the little things.”