By Summer Martin

Victoria Orlando is studying to be a veterinarian at Sullivan Foundation partner school Lincoln Memorial University, but she recently got a heartbreaking crash course in caring for human patients with COVID-19 as part of her service with the National Guard.

Orlando, a third-year veterinary medicine student at Lincoln Memorial’s College of Veterinary Medicine, was deployed as part of a Joint Force Medical Strike Team with the Pennsylvania National Guard. Their mission was to assist at a rehab and nursing facility dealing with current staffing shortages due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Orlando served as a Certified Nurse’s Assistant (CNA), helping care for residents, many of whom had tested positive for COVID-19. “I spent most of my time going from room to room checking on the residents, seeing if there was anything I could help them with. This usually ranged from giving them showers to fixing TVs,” said Orlando. “We would deliver meals, help feed residents, get them water, help with basic medical and care procedures, and just spend time chatting.”

The experience was both physically difficult—Orlando endured 12-hour shifts—and emotionally challenging as she saw first-hand the suffering of patients in the facility. “Several of the residents I cared for passed away, and I hit my breaking point putting them in body bags,” Orlando said. “I had a hard time feeling like I did not do enough for the residents while I was there. It was also difficult for me knowing that most of the residents were COVID-positive and their families couldn’t see them.”

Though it was challenging, Orlando said the experience had a profound impact on her. “Everybody deserves to be treated like a person, regardless of their physical or mental state. Respect is a necessity at all times,” said Orlando. “I also learned that even the smallest gestures can have huge impacts. For example, I was able to get several of the residents masks and newspaper articles, and they were so thankful.”

this photo shows Victoria Orlando and her fellow National Guard members in uniforms and masks

During a recent mission for the Pennsylvania National Guard, Victoria Orlando (far left) served as a Certified Nurse’s Assistant (CNA), helping care for residents who had tested positive for COVID-19. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Master Sgt. George Roach)

Orlando has served in the Army National Guard for seven years. She joined in 2012 and left for basic training at Fort Sill in Oklahoma in September that year. She enlisted as a 68W health care specialist and combat medic and went on to complete Advanced Individual Training at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas.

She says her experience serving in the Army National Guard has prepared her to be a better leader in her future career as a veterinarian. “The National Guard has given me a lot of confidence in myself and my abilities. I do not think I would be at that level without the training I have been through,” said Orlando. “This experience has also given me the ability to see things in perspective. Yes, veterinary school is very challenging, but it is a very brief four years, and your whole life is ahead of you. Just push through and move on. That viewpoint has helped me tremendously.”

Orlando looks forward to graduating with her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree in May 2021.

This article has been edited from the original version appearing on the Lincoln-Memorial University website.

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