Sarah Nickel is an assistant professor at Wichita State. When she is not teaching her students or spending time with her family, she is joining the fight against COVID-19.
Nickel is a medical laboratory scientist at Ascension Via Christi St. Francis Hospital in Wichita. She specializes in identifying agents that cause infections in patients.
“Most of my time there is spent growing and identifying bacteria, performing molecular tests for both bacteria and viruses, and helping validate new methods for use in the laboratory,” Nickel said.
After graduating from Wichita State with a degree in medical laboratory sciences, she started work at St. Francis as a generalist in the clinical laboratory.
She transitioned into working in microbiology for 10 years. Currently, she works when necessary and teaches medical laboratory sciences at Wichita State.
“Teaching is such a rewarding profession, but my time at the hospital always reminds me of why I wanted to teach in the first place. It helps keep me motivated,” Nickel said.
Nickel continues to work with the same motivations, but she has added a new one to her list: ending COVID-19.
Nickel receives samples from dedicated nurses working in a unit that specifically deals with COVID-19 cases. Once Nickel receives the samples, she outsources the results from independent laboratories.
Normally, microbiologists would test the sampled cells for a virus by running a test that looks for the RNA of the virus. However, without COVID-19 testing kits they can’t confirm a specific virus.
“We have the instrumentation to perform the testing, but manufacturers can’t make enough kits to keep up with the demand,” Nickel said.
The current testing process takes about 24-48 hours. In 2009, during the H1N1 outbreak, St. Francis received tests back in 8 hours.
Hospitals are running low on other essential supplies like protective equipment and nasopharyngeal flocked swabs. These swabs are used to collect cells to test for viruses.
“Lack of ability to test patients has been a very frustrating problem for us,” Nickel said.
Despite all the negatives, Nickel remains positive and for good reason. On Sunday, April 26 St. Francis received testing kits.
medical laboratory scientist
“It was pretty exciting,” Nickel said.
Nickel is encouraged when she sees COVID-19 patients recovering.
“There are a lot of people beating this disease,” Nickel said.
The Wichita community has been very encouraging to healthcare workers through their donations and adherence to health and safety. Recovered COVID-19 patients are offering their plasma, which contains COVID-19 antibodies, to hospitalized patients. The Ad Astra Coalition - which consists of AeroSystems, Textron Aviation, Airbus Americas Aviation, WSU Tech and Wichita State University—are producing face shields and disposable stethoscopes.
Nickel worked long hours attending to an overwhelming number of patients during the H1N1 outbreak in 2009. During this pandemic, the hospital is less busy because the Wichita community has followed precautionary guidelines set forth by the CDC and Sedgwick County Health Department.
“One of the biggest positives to me is knowing how many deaths we have prevented with social distancing,” Nickel said.
An unintended consequence of this pandemic has been the increased awareness of hospital challenges. Hospitals are being asked to do more for patients with fewer resources.
“When people’s lives are involved, that is a scary concept,” Nickel said.
Nickel hopes that this pandemic will lead to increased financing within the healthcare system and a greater appreciation for laboratory sciences.
In the meantime, Nickel remains determined and grateful.
“Thank you for social distancing to help save the vulnerable and keep our healthcare system from being so overwhelmed with very sick patients.”
For information on how to donate supplies or check on current needs at St. Francis, call 316-281-5175.