Johnny Choi was expecting to finish nursing school at Michigan State University and enjoy a leisurely summer before heading into the workforce in the fall. Instead the coronavirus hit – and the 22-year-old found himself on the front lines of the battle against it.
“I wouldn’t say that it was necessarily straight bravery, but I did feel a sense of responsibility,” said Choi.
The Covid-19 pandemic has created a shortage of health care workers to care for critically ill patients. Choi and thousands of other nursing students across the country had their 2020 graduation fast-tracked to help fill those gaps. Choi believes that for many it was an easy decision.
“I think for a lot of students, myself included, we felt that we have a specific set of knowledge and skills that are needed in this crisis,” Choi told CNN.
“If we are given the opportunity to use those skills and knowledge to help out, we should.”
The Michigan native now works full-time as a support nurse floating between the Intensive Care Unit and the Covid-19 unit at Ascension Providence Hospital in Novi, Michigan.
“It’s something that we’re going to be dealing with for many years to come,” said Choi.
“Knowing that’s going to be the reality, it doesn’t make sense for us just to pause.”
So, on April 20, with little pomp and circumstance, Choi graduated virtually and delivered a commencement speech to his outgoing class.
“We’ve been prepared to do this, and now we’re ready to go out and make a difference,” he said. “We don’t know much about this virus, but we do know how to take care of people.”
A day in the life
Choi’s days look very different than they did prior to the pandemic.
Before Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer shut down the state’s schools on March 11, Choi spent most of his days between clinicals, class and a twice-a-month externship in a neuroscience ICU.
He’s now working three twelve-hour days each week as a support nurse. Choi monitors patients’ medications, blood pressure, heart rate, and kidney function as well as checking ventilators and notifying a respiratory therapist if they need cleaning or adjusting.
The young nurse also serves as a messenger to families, a role he said has been most eye-opening.
Many hospitals have barred visitors, making nurses the biggest comforter and communicator of vital information for both the patients and their families.
“I put myself in their shoes,” Choi explained. “If one of my family members was in the hospital, I would be freaking out, and I would want to know everything about their care.”
“This is a tough time for families, and I just try to be supportive of their needs and making sure we are not only taking care of the patient but supporting the family as well.”
Inspired by his sisters, and glaring health disparities
When Choi first went off to college, nursing wasn’t his first choice.
“I actually came into Michigan State as a business major.”
After seeing his older sisters Caitlyn and Kristen become nurses, he shifted gears.
“I was very confused as an 18-year-old boy, but I knew I wanted to be in some type of profession that I was able to change lives in some sort of impactful way,” Choi reflected.
As he dove into his nursing courses and learned about the issues blocking many Americans from getting care, he knew this was the place for him to be.
“In America, there are a lot of health disparities among different populations like race, class, and gender,” he said.
“I think there’s a lot of opportunities to change patient lives for the good.”
Although he hasn’t been able to see his family in person in quite some time, he says that FaceTime calls from his older sisters who are also on the pandemic’s front lines have been extremely helpful.
“Hearing their encouragement and experiences with Covid-19 patients and just having that support has really been key to me keeping a positive attitude. I see this as an opportunity for me to take care of a vulnerable patient, educate them, advocate for them, serve them, and change their health journey in a positive way.”