Above: Veteran nurse Bob Hutcheson works in the intensive care unit of Wellstar North Fulton Hospital. SPECIAL

Once COVID-19 began its spread across the country, Sarah Pawli wanted to help fight it. After having worked for decades as a nurse and medical administrator in Atlanta, she felt she could be useful in helping patients deal with the virus and with efforts to control it.

“I have this God-given skill set. I can’t just let it go to waste,” she said. “I can’t do nothing, I reached out [and said], ‘If there’s any way I can help, I want to be involved.’”

At age 64, she also knew she was one of the people being warned to stay far, far away from those who were infected by the new coronavirus. Seniors quickly were identified as one of the groups of people most liable to be made seriously ill or even killed by the virus. As a group, they were warned to stay at home and avoid people who were infected.

But as most seniors have sheltered in place, some senior medical care providers have decided to join the fight against the virus. Some have moved into jobs where they have little or no personal contact with sick patients, but others have joined younger colleagues on the front lines of the COVID-19 fight.

woman at computer

Nurse Sarah Pawli answers questions on a COVID-19 hotline from her home in the Georgia mountains. SPECIAL

Pawli, who retired to Hiawassee in the Georgia mountains after a career as a cardiology nurse at Piedmont Hospital in Atlanta, found a part-time nursing job that allowed her to work at an office in Blairsville. Since March 18, she’s spent a couple of days a week helping staff a hotline for people with coronavirus questions.

“With this hotline, I’m helping my front-line colleagues,” she said. “I’m also helping my community.”

At the same time, she’s able to stay away from the front lines in the battle against the virus. “I work in my dining room,” she said. “That’s the beauty of it. I don’t have to go to hospital.”

Bob Hutcheson, a 71-year-old nurse at Wellstar North Fulton Hospital in Roswell, does go into work a full shift each week in the hospital’s intensive care unit, where, in recent months, he has regularly cared for COVID-19 patients.

“I feel like I’m needed now more than ever,” he said. “The reason I got into nursing in the first place was to help people, and the COVID patients really need help.”

Hutcheson, who was born in Atlanta and now lives in Cumming, said he’s worked in nursing for 44 years, including three decades at North Fulton s. He worked at hospitals in California, Idaho and Arizona before that. “I’ve had a good life,” he said. “It’s been a heck of a trip.”

Before the spread of coronavirus, his ICU patients tended to be ones suffering from injuries received in accidents or from heart attacks.

The COVID patients he sees “are generally pretty sick,” he said. Some need ventilators to breathe. ICU nurses, who are used to taking precautions against infectious diseases, take extra steps because of new coronavirus. ‘We always wear two pairs of shoes, a gown, a hat and N-95 mask, and maybe another mask,” he said. “Plus, we have eye protection.”

The illness puts other demands on nurses. Because efforts to contain the disease require isolating patients, “we make a special effort to communicate with COVID patients’ families,” he said.

Pawli, too, believes providing correct information is important to help people deal with the pandemic.

“People are scared,” she said. “They don’t know what to believe. I can draw on my 40 years of healthcare experience and share my knowledge.”

Callers she chatted with have ranged from college students to elderly residents. One elderly man said he and his wife had stayed in their home for weeks to avoid the virus. Now they’re worried that if they left home, they might risk spreading the virus.

“All they wanted to know was would it be OK if they went outside for a while,” she said. “I told him to wear a mask, but absolutely he should go outside and enjoy some sunshine.”

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