Junior Andrew Fowler pulled countless all nighters last semester, but not for the same reasons most college students did. It wasn’t because of wild nights or grinding on research papers that Fowler would head to sleep at 9 a.m. — it was because mornings were when he could finally lie down after a 12-hour night shift at Johns Hopkins Hospital.
Despite being a premed student majoring in pharmacology and drug development with 18 units of coursework, Fowler has been balancing responsibilities as a full-time student and clinical care technician since last March. Having worked in an ER since age 17 and receiving certification as a pharmacy technician, phlebotomist, EMT and nursing assistant in high school, Fowler said he felt responsible to take on the new challenge of working in an intensive care unit after classes transitioned online.
“I felt an absolute compelling duty to act and interact with, in medicine, patients, during this time when we as the United States and the greater world needed it most,” Fowler said. “So for me, it kind of felt like a natural thing for me to do. There was never a question of ‘Oh, am I going to work during this time?’ ‘There was obviously the risk.’ But that choice, honestly, was never anything that crossed my mind.”
As Fowler started his job at the beginning of the pandemic, he said he watched as the coronavirus spread rapidly throughout the hospital, with specialty intensive care units transitioning to focus entirely on coronavirus cases. He mainly worked in an ICU that specialized in cancer treatment; however, as cases rose, his job as a critical care technician took him to coronavirus units as well, where he served at the frontlines of the pandemic.
“It’s definitely not something I would take lightly, going to work into a place that’s such a high COVID positive capacity,” Fowler said. “But in the same way, I feel uniquely privileged to be able to interact with the pandemic in this way and play some sort of role in being able to help people and make a difference.”
While working at the hospital, Fowler had to readjust to a new lifestyle — moving alone to an apartment in Baltimore two hours away from home, avoiding contact with people outside of work and living with incredible discipline for the sake of his patients. Fowler said he ordered all of his groceries with contactless delivery and had to distance from his family and friends for most of his time at Johns Hopkins.
Fowler’s mother, Amber Gaskill, said she never doubted Fowler’s ability to handle the double workload and to do so safely. She said she never worried too much about her son because “As soon as he set his mind to something that was what he was going to do.”
“When he does something, he does it with everything that he is. He has a passion for things,” Gaskill said. “He could call me when he was at school telling me ‘Oh, mom,I’m gonna do this’ or ‘I’m going to do that,’ and all I could think was ‘How are you managing to do all of these things and also sleep? Are you sleeping?’ … I just knew he would be okay.”
Fowler said that the balancing act was a challenge, but one he was already familiar with as a first-generation low-income student.
“Anyone from that background could tell you that they are experts in adaptability because we have no choice but to be,” Fowler said. “We never had the ability to just go to school and not work at the same time. It definitely was a lesson in really pushing the bounds in what it meant to be adaptable. I would say I’m lucky, based on my background, to be well suited for the challenge.”
Despite Fowler’s familiarity with flexibility, his semester was no easy feat. As a student, he still had to find time to study for a biochemistry exam or attend meetings as the senior executive advisor to the Undergraduate Student Government president. Fowler said he often scheduled Zoom calls or study time during his meal break or when patients were sleeping. Otherwise, he was on the go, assessing surgical sites, event managing intubated patients and drawing blood. He essentially performed most tasks a nurse would, except for administering medicine, he said.
“You just have to be scrappy about how you use your time,” Fowler said.
Cassidy Highsmith, a nurse at Johns Hopkins who became close with Fowler, said she was impressed with how Fowler was able to fulfill his studies and still excel at work.
“He did so well at doing everything he was supposed to do,” Highsmith said. “He is not only a strong coworker that’s willing to step in, and you can trust that what he’s doing is good work … He’s just always going above and beyond to learn outside of his own scope so that he can be more prepared for what he has to do and for his responsibilities.”
Fowler said one of the hardest parts of life while at Johns Hopkins was distancing from his family for the sake of their and his patients’ safety. Fowler said he became proficient with FaceTime and Zoom calls, and that he found a sense of camaraderie with his coworkers with whom he could share similar struggles.
“We were all going through the same thing, so it was definitely super easy to be able to talk to them,” Fowler said. “It made a lot of the struggles we were facing more real because all of us could talk about it more openly … That definitely brought us closer together.”
Fowler said some of the hardest days were when he had to help patients and their family members grieve with the end-of-life process or watch patients struggle on life support. He found an outlet in coworkers who could relate to that weight and practiced self-care by squeezing in runs, but he said he also found it helpful to direct his coping towards finding ways to “improve the system itself.”
“[Working so closely with patients and their families] changed my view on end-of-life care and its faults and shortcomings in America, which later prompted me to want to further investigate that and get involved with the policy work surrounding end-of-life care,” Fowler said. “If people were given the opportunity to really define their values and what they value at the end of their life, I think that would change how we as a culture and society view death and dying and medicine during these stages.”
Moving forward, Fowler plans to continue researching more expansive and value centered end-of-life care plans, and intends to go to medical school to become an anesthesiologist or doctor in intensive care. Next semester, he will be working in an emergency room at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, where he will be able to scale back his work days to once or twice a week and continue as a full-time student.
“Interacting with medicine during the pandemic, it’s definitely a unique experience,” Fowler said. “It really has given me a chance to be a part of something that’s so much bigger than what I am and what I can singly contribute.”