Mar. 4, 2020 seemed to be just another day in Kentucky. Then, life in the Commonwealth was turned on its head when the first COVID-19 case was confirmed in Harrison County.
Since then, businesses like restaurants, gyms and entertainment facilities have been shuttered. Social distancing has become the norm and only the essentials remain. But teachers, school administrators, healthcare workers and first responders still have vitally important jobs to do while a global pandemic rages on.
Thanks to Eastern Kentucky University and its thousands of graduates who have gone on to serve Kentucky communities in vital professions, Kentucky’s communities still have the vital services they need to get through COVID-19.
The vast majority – nearly 90 percent – of EKU undergraduates call Kentucky home, and 76 percent of EKU alumni are employed in their home state within five years of their graduation – the highest percentages among all public, four-year institutions in the Commonwealth. That is why Eastern can proudly claim the mantle of “Kentucky’s University,” and why we can boldly declare that we are powering Kentucky communities in the face of crisis.
The profiles that follow can only begin to tell the story of the impact EKU graduates are making on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic. Their venues of service may vary, but a common thread is unmistakable: a passion to serve others and make a positive difference.
Leah Gaddis: Registered Nurse
Leah Gaddis, ‘15 ‘19, entered the associate’s degree in nursing program at EKU with dreams of helping patients and changing lives. But when she imagined her first year of nursing, a global pandemic never crossed her mind. Her training at Eastern prepared her to rise to the challenge.
“I chose Eastern for my nursing degree because of their reputation. Folks know what caliber of nurses graduate from Eastern,” said Gaddis. “They stand apart from other programs.”
After a brief stint as a paramedic, Gaddis now serves in the Clinical Decision Unit at Baptist Health Lexington, a new unit that serves as an overflow for emergency room patients who need extended care. These days, Gaddis has seen a massive influx of those patients coming to seek testing and treatment for COVID-19, and with a profound global shortage of protective equipment, healthcare workers face significant risk. But compassion for her patients, a sense of hope, and the support of her professors and fellow Colonels inspire her to keep fighting.
“Attitude matters when you stand against the unknown,” Gaddis said. “People are uniting across the globe now against a common enemy. Learn from us and change positively moving forward.”
Angie Breakall: Oncology and Hospice Nurse
Angie Breakall, ‘16, has always had a penchant for caring for others. Growing up, she often cared for her three younger siblings and started a nursing degree after graduating from high school. After putting her education on hold to care for her daughter, she decided to return to school finish her degree. EKU’s respected nursing program made Breakall’s choice easy.
“EKU nursing is esteemed as one of the best programs in the nation,” said Breakall. “I train many students and new nurses and EKU grads are top-notch.”
After graduating in 2016, Breakall accepted a position in the intensive care unit at Baptist Health Lexington. She later transferred to oncology and hospice, where she administers chemotherapy to in-patients and cares for hospice patients. Both demographics are close to her heart; when a close friend passed away from breast cancer, watching the compassionate care of her hospice team inspired Breakall to enter the field herself.
As a nurse at a major hospital, Breakall grapples with the effects of the pandemic daily. She and fellow nurses across departments are sometimes pulled to COVID-19 units, and other times care for patients displaced by the influx of coronavirus patients. Still, Breakall stays positive.
“On the front lines, I recommend taking care of yourself, and getting plenty of fresh air, sunshine and physical activity,” said Breakall. “We can’t let panic set in no matter what we see or hear. We must be strong and lead by example. This is our opportunity to help others in serious need.”
Katelyn Arvin: Clinical Counselor
For Katelyn Arvin, ‘14 ‘16, her choice of career hits close to home as struggles with anxiety, depression, and trauma throughout her teens and early twenties ignited her passion for mental health.
“I learned, over time, how important mental healing is. I felt empowered when I discovered my own ability to change the trajectory of my mental health,” she said.
Arvin’s Eastern experience prepared her to help others do the same as a clinical counselor.
“After graduating from EKU, I felt well rounded heading out into the community. EKU channels students into hands-on experiences that led me to feel comfortable serving others out in the real world," Arvin reflected. "Now, I enjoy hearing people's thoughts and supporting them with tools to process their healing. Counseling is something I feel called to do.”
As lead clinical navigator for behavioral health services at Baptist Health Richmond, Arvin gets to do just that. She and her team advocate for the mental health needs of, and provide bedside crisis intervention for, patients in other hospital departments. She now finds herself on the front lines of a pervasive, yet often overlooked element of the pandemic.
“We as humans feel discomfort about the unknown. Regardless of what we do know about COVID-19, the pandemic has evoked a collective sense of anxiety,” she said. “This is a time when we must be especially mindful of how we care for our mental health.”
To continue providing care, Baptist Health is offering patients options like telehealth communications, a 24/7 Behavioral Health Hotline, and 24/7 emergency crisis consultations. “I am proud of the collective efforts of the Baptist Health Richmond hospital to address safety during this time,” Arvin said. “We view the community as a big family, and we are here for you.”
Branden Martin: EMT and Firefighter
Branden Martin, ‘18, has felt passion for firefighting and helping others since he was four years old. The son of a firefighter, he spent significant time in the firehouse, even requesting fire truck rides as birthday treats.
“What little boy didn’t want to be a fireman, policeman or astronaut when they grew up? My desire was just solidified then rather than becoming something else,” Martin said.
When the time came to choose a college and a major, EKU’s unique and accredited Fire, Arson, and Explosion Investigation program stood out as the obvious choice.
Martin treasures the education and hands-on experience he received as a Colonel. He had opportunities to put his skills to work both on campus and during an internship abroad in Australia. Yet it is the connections he made at Eastern that have proved most valuable.
“The biggest way EKU prepared me to serve in this field is by connecting me with professors and peers that I can reach out to with questions to this day,” he reflected.
Martin has served his community as a volunteer firefighter since 2011, long before he earned his degree. He now serves as a lieutenant with Meade County Fire Protection District. While Shepherdsville has yet to see any cases of COVID-19, Martin and his fellow responders stand ready to serve when and if it hits. The department is taking appropriate precautions, limiting contact with the public and monitoring the health of their staff. Martin’s biggest conviction, though, is keeping people informed.
“Ultimately, first responders are community leaders,” he said, “and the public expects us to be knowledgeable.”
Sarah Reister: Second Grade Teacher
When Sarah Reister, ‘19, entered EKU as a freshman, she had ruled out one field as her life’s work: education. Having grown up in a family of teachers, she knew what the job entailed. Yet after nearly two years without a declared major, she decided to give education a shot and immediately fell in love.
“When the time came that I started education courses, I immediately knew I was right where I was supposed to be,” said Reister. “I was surrounded by ‘my people.’ Educators are some of the most loyal, dependable, and uplifting people.”
Now as a second grade teacher at nearby Kirksville Elementary School, Reister couldn’t be more confident in her choice. Eastern, she says, gifted her with not only a superb education, but lasting relationships and passion.
“EKU provided many healthy opportunities for me to be pushed out of my comfort zone. The education program has given me a toolbox of knowledge that I carry with me on how to be a great teacher, connected me with peers that I look to for support, and a love for being there for others,” she reflected.
Even though schools across the state have been emptied of students, the work has not stopped for Reister and her fellow teachers. Students are continuing their school year through non-traditional instruction (NTI), a combination of paper packets and online resources. “To say that school systems are working tirelessly right now would be an understatement,” she said. “Teachers are trying their hardest to find a strong balance of paperwork and online instruction, and being on-call during the day to help in any way possible.”
Reister strives to create a sense of normalcy and connection for her students, using FaceTime and Zoom to keep up communication. But perhaps her greatest gift to students is modeling a sense of calm confidence.
“I am taking this day-by-day,” Reister said. “I’m staying positive and encouraging my students and their families to do the same.”
Dekia Gaither: Director of Environmental Health and Safety
Perhaps closest to home in the fight against COVID-19 is Dekia Gaither, director of environmental health and safety at EKU. Her time at Eastern, both as a student and an environmental health and safety professional, gave her the opportunity to grow in expertise and leadership skills.
Gaither earned both a bachelor’s degree and a master’s of public health degree from EKU. While a graduate student, she interned as an environmental health and safety technician with the EKU Department of Environmental Health and Safety. She said her graduate internship “set me directly on this path.”
“The management style, work and learning environment, and the emphasis on teamwork had a profound impact on me. From specialist to manager and now director, there have been many challenges and opportunities along the way, but I wouldn’t change my experiences,” Gaither continued. “Those experiences and opportunities led me to be the person and leader I am today. Many thanks to those who believed in and supported me along the way.”
As director and a member of the COVID-19 response team at EKU, Gaither is on the front lines of student health and safety at a precarious time. Her department has provided much-needed education, training and supplies to the rest of the campus community. “The Department of Environmental Health and Safety stands ready to assist in whatever capacity we are needed,” she said.
Adapted from “Powering Kentucky Communities,” which appears in the Fall 2017 issue of EKU Magazine