TIFTON, Ga. — Chelsie Turrubiartez does not remember the ambulance ride. But she will never forget the day she walked across the stage at Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College to receive her nursing degree.
Turrubiartez was on track to receive her associate degree in nursing from ABAC at the end of the 2020 spring semester. Then on March 31, 2020, her life turned upside down.
“I had a cough, a fever, and a headache,” Turrubiartez said. “I went to the hospital, and they admitted me to the ICU. I had tested negative for the virus the week before, but I felt dehydrated and my oxygen was really low.
“When I got to the hospital, I got a positive COVID test, and they put me on a ventilator. I wasn’t improving. I was scared.”
Because of her weak condition, Southwell transferred Turrubiartez to the University of Florida Health Shand’s Hospital in Gainesville, Fla.
“The ventilator was on max setting,” the 23-year-old Turrubiartez said. “They put me in the ambulance, and I had to be on my stomach the entire way. I don’t remember the ride at all. I was out of it.”
At Shand’s, Turrubiartez said she was placed on extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO), where blood is pumped outside of your body to a heart-lung machine that removes carbon dioxide and sends oxygen-filled blood back to tissues in the body. Blood flows from the right side of the heart to the membrane oxygenator in the heart-lung machine, where it is rewarmed and sent back to the body.
“I could hear and see people, but I don’t remember much about Shand’s,” Turrubiartez said. “I knew there was a chance I would not come off the ventilator.”
Turrubiartez finally responded to the treatment and made another ambulance ride back to Southwell in Tifton in late April. She was released on May 4. She had not seen her mother, Debbie Bullard, or her three brothers since March 31.
“I was in a state of disbelief that I went through all that,” Turrubiartez, an Adel resident, said. “I didn’t see my family that entire time. I had a lot of anxiety.”
As well she might.
After graduating from Cook High School in 2015, Turrubiartez started classes at ABAC in a slow journey toward her nursing degree. She was all set to participate in the virtual commencement ceremony in May 2020 and receive her associate degree. It didn’t happen because her five weeks of terror from the virus wiped out her chances.
“ABAC worked with me and allowed me to repeat my spring semester during the fall semester,” Turrubiartez said. “I was really happy when I graduated. I didn’t think I would get a chance to do that.”
There were many smiles on the faces of graduates at ABAC on Dec. 3 when the college staged three different commencement ceremonies because of COVID-19 protocols. Turrubiartez may have had the biggest one of all.
But the story does not end there.
Turrubiartez received the Lisa Purvis Allison Spirit of Nursing Award at the ABAC nursing pinning ceremony immediately after the commencement. The award included a scholarship check for $500.
And there is more good news.
Turrubiartez recently passed the National Council Licensure Examination-Registered Nurse (NCLEX-RN) and accepted an offer from Southwell to begin working as an RN on the Medical West Floor.
“I had been working as a nurse extender at Southwell since I graduated from high school,” Turrubiartez said. “It’s like a nurse’s aide. I have always wanted to be a nurse, and now it feels really good to be able to do that.”
In the space of nine months, Turrubiartez has gone from a patient at Southwell in the Intensive Care Unit to a full-fledged Registered Nurse on the general medicine surgical floor.
“I definitely have a soft spot for COVID patients,” Turrubiartez said. “I know from personal experience how anxious they can be. I want to be there and help them any way that I can.”
Turrubiartez plans to take a semester away from ABAC and then enroll in ABAC classes for her Bachelor of Science in Nursing degree, one of 12 bachelor’s degrees offered by ABAC.