Fresh out of school, Alex Hsu ’19 navigates life as a nurse in pandemic's epicenter

Alex Hsu ’19
Alex Hsu graduated with his degree in Nursing from UNE in December and was immediately thrown onto the front lines of the global coronavirus pandemic.

Alex Hsu ’19 (Nursing) knew his chosen profession would be challenging and filled with uncertainty. He also knew that some days would be harder than others. But what the Taiwanese native did not expect, upon his December graduation from the University of New England, was that those days would come so soon.

Having passed his licensing exams in late January, Hsu graduated straight into the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. 

“It’s actually kind of fortunate that I graduated when I did, because this is what I wanted to do,” said Hsu. “I want to help people and to see them get better.”

Following graduation, Hsu worked a short stint at a hospital in Hammond, Indiana, directly on the border of neighboring Illinois. Once cases of COVID-19 — the disease caused by the novel coronavirus — began to emerge across the United States, Hsu decided to relocate to fight the virus in New York City, which has since become the pandemic’s global epicenter.

The decision to work in health care came easy for Hsu, who formerly worked internationally in engineering and research and development before discovering UNE. Hsu’s passion for helping others began at age 14, when his father was involved in a serious accident. Hsu’s family lived in Argentina at the time, and so he was called into the emergency room to translate his father’s care.

“I then decided to become a medical professional so I could help save people in the future,” he recalled. “After working for a German company and then back in Asia, I decided to pursue my dream of coming to the United States to study in the medical field. I liked nursing because I could work directly with patients and see how they become better under our care.”

Now based a hospital in the New York City borough of the Bronx, Hsu is living a very real, and sometimes unnerving, version of his dream.

The job is difficult. Nurses care for COVID-19 patients for hours at a time while wearing personal protective equipment (PPE), including gowns, masks, booties, and face shields. The airtight effect of the PPE makes it very hot for the nurses, Hsu said.

“After 10 minutes, you feel hot, and then another 10 minutes later you start sweating. After two hours, your scrubs are completely soaked through,” he said. “You’re working, working, and working until your time is over, and it’s like that every day.”

Shortage of PPE is a growing concern, Hsu added, especially in hard-hit New York City. 
“The working environment is so difficult that it really is like fighting a battle. When some nurses are requested to provide care without wearing PPE, it’s like asking a soldier to go to the front lines with a machete when the other side has machine guns,” he said. “We have no time to grieve or adjust to the emotion after witnessing a patient pass away because more patients are there waiting for you.”

The COVID-19 situation in the United States is in stark contrast to Hsu’s native Taiwan, which has only seen 437 total cases of the virus and just six deaths. Compare that to the U.S., which has long surpassed mainland China — where the virus first emerged — in the number of cases. The States is has seen over 1.1 million documented cases of COVID-19 and nearly 68,000 deaths.

For a new nurse working in the center of a global pandemic, these truly are nerve-wracking times. However, while Hsu said he is concerned at the shortage of PPE needed to protect himself and others like him, he feels energized to work with patients and save lives. 

“This is the opportunity to save lives. I want to do this. It is the reason I chose this profession, and it is something I need to do,” he said. “And I’m very grateful to UNE for giving me this opportunity.”

Hsu also spoke out to his UNE colleagues soon to be entering the health care field and encouraged them to join the fight against COVID-19.

“I want to encourage all the students who are graduating to come out and help us,” he said. “I think this pandemic will last for a long time, and we need all hands on deck."