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UW nursing student feels lucky to be on the front lines fighting COVID-19

In this April 2, 2020 photo, a nurse at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle holds a medical face shield prior to the start of her shift in a triage tent outside the hospital's emergency department.
Ted S. Warren
The Associated Press
In this April 2, 2020 photo, a nurse at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle holds a medical face shield prior to the start of her shift in a triage tent outside the hospital's emergency department.

Have you ever felt like this is your moment, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to really make a difference? Nursing student Liam Malpass says that’s what it feels like for him right now. He’s one of 45 graduate students in University of Washington's School of Nursing who are getting their clinical experience by working with King County Public Health during the fight against coronavirus.

Liam Malpass, 30, is in his second year of a three-year nurse practitioner program. Like other health care students, his chance of getting field experience disappeared in the wake of COVID-19, as hospitals and clinics put programs on hold. So when UW’s nursing school announced it was partnering with King County Public Health so students could volunteer to do clinical work on the front lines, Malpass leapt at the chance.

"Did I ever think I would be part of something like this when I got into nursing? I don't think so, but it's something I'm so glad that I'm a part of," Malpass said.

He said to be part of a history, a health care provider in the midst of a global pandemic helping people who have contracted the virus, is something he thinks he’ll look back on with pride. He’s been assigned to King County’s Assessment and Recovery Center in Shoreline. It’s a temporary, 150-bed facility constructed practically overnight on a soccer field. It’s designed for people who are homeless and need to be isolated as they recover from the virus. Malpass says while he's working, his emotions run the gamut.

Liam Malpass

“At times I feel calm and confident in what I’m doing," he said. "At other times I feel honestly overwhelmed by just the sheer scale of what’s happening, not just in our community but throughout the world.”

He’s reluctant to talk too much about the specifics of his work at the recovery center. He said he wants to make sure to protect the patients privacy. What he does say is that, in the past when he was in health care settings, there were longstanding protocols and procedures you followed. Now, he said, with new information constantly coming out about the virus such as how it spreads, things are more in a state of flux.

“You know we often use the metaphor we’re building the plane as we’re flying it," he said.

But, he said, it has taught him to be flexible.

"You know, I may not know what next week brings in terms of my career, in terms of my education, in terms of my personal life and that’s been humbling because it’s caused me to slow down a bit and think, day by day, what’s important to me and that’s been really helpful just to stay in a good head space,” he said.

Malpass said he likes seeing nurses portrayed as heroes collectively, although he rejects the individual label for himself. He said he sees this as a time for his chosen profession to shine.

“I really think nurses will come out on the other side of this pandemic as leaders in helping to process the learning from both triumphs and failures," he said. 

Every night at 8 p.m., Malpass goes up to the rooftop of his apartment building. He takes part in a "joyful noise" celebration, a movement started in Italy to let health care and other front-line workers know they are appreciated.

“I clang on my pan because it’s something we do together as a community and it really recognizes our strength in unity and recognizing that we’re all part of this together and we will make it through this together,”  he said.

News health careCoronavirus CoverageCOVID-19UW School of Nursing
Paula is a former host, reporter and producer who retired from KNKX in 2021. She joined the station in 1989 as All Things Considered host and covered the Law and Justice beat for 15 years. Paula grew up in Idaho and, prior to KNKX, worked in public radio and television in Boise, San Francisco and upstate New York.