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A cross-country journey led East Lyme's Jackey (Woodworth) Harper to nursing

She started as an athlete. Jackey (Woodworth) Harper made a remarkable 343 saves in goal as a senior for the East Lyme High School field hockey team, named The Day's 1999 All-Area Field Hockey Player of the Year in her third year as a starter.

Then came her career at Temple University, when Harper left athletics behind her. She majored in Spanish with a minor in journalism. She thought, at first, she might go to law school, then she wanted to join the Peace Corps.

Though she didn't do any of those things, she found a different environment to explore during her college years in Philadelphia, one so vastly different than her home in Niantic. She was a server, at one point, for instance, at Alma de Cuba, a Cuban restaurant in Philly where then-future Iron Chef Jose Garces was the executive chef.

"I feel like I have many different lives at this point," Harper said. "They do help each other out."

She wound up with a career in nursing.

Harper, 37, is a nurse in the medical intensive care unit at Providence Regional Medical Center in Everett, Wash., the town where she resides with husband Paul and 16-month-old son Dylan.

The hospital is the same one which treated the very first COVID-19 patient in the United States. A 35-year-old man, treated and eventually released, began feeling ill a few days after returning from a trip to visit family in Wuhan, China, and was hospitalized at Providence on Jan. 20.

A few weeks later, Harper returned to work following 11 months of maternity leave into what would soon be termed a pandemic. Washington announced the first death of a COVID-19 patient in the United States and until it was surpassed by New York in mid-March had the highest number of confirmed coronavirus cases per capita of any state in the country.

"That was kind of interesting," said Harper, whose family members and co-workers refer to her by the nickname "Jax." "It was a weird environment to come back into. We saw it kind of happening. It was definitely nerve-wracking. Everything started spreading. Some people were even calling (the area) 'America's Wuhan.'

"I work on the medical ICU, my ICU is the non-surgical candidates; people with infectious diseases, that's where they go. The sickest of the sick. ... I think the person, they called him 'patient X' or 'patient 0,' he had traveled to China and it might have been his clinic doctor that diagnosed him. Once we knew that we had it in Washington, everybody's radar went on."

The initial COVID-19 patient at Providence was housed in an isolation wing it had reserved years before for those stricken with Ebola, never used until now. According to a story in the Seattle Times, a team of more than 20 nurses and three doctors rotated in taking care of that patient. Then the numbers of coronavirus patients began to flood the hospital.

"When we started having more cases, we started having two nurses per patient in ICU, one to check we were putting the protective equipment on correctly," Harper said. "Then, within weeks we had two patients at a time and nobody checking, basically because of the volume but also because we became more skilled at doing that all day long."

At the beginning of the pandemic, Harper said she and a few colleagues went to an industrial supply store and purchased some of their own equipment, including N-95 surgical masks, out of fear they wouldn't have the right measures to protect themselves at the hospital.

"I haven't needed to use any of those things we purchased," said Harper, who praised the hospital where she works two 12-hour shifts per week since returning from her maternity leave. "I am really proud of my hospital and my team."

***

When Harper returned to southeastern Connecticut from Temple, she got a job as an English as a second language tutor for Norwich Public Schools and resumed working at fine dining restaurants. Paul, meanwhile, was in the Navy, stationed in Groton.

The two met one night at Mohegan Sun, each having gone with a friend to listen to a band they liked, Flowers and Kain. Paul got transferred to Naval Station Everett, 25 miles north of Seattle, to serve aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln. Jackey went with him. The couple celebrated their 10th anniversary last week.

"During that road trip (from Niantic to Everett)," Harper said, asked when she decided to become a nurse. "We stayed with his parents in Colorado Springs for three weeks over the Christmas holiday and I thought about it then.

"My best friend (Michele Santaniello, a fellow East Lyme grad) is a nurse. I never thought anything of it. I didn't really know what nurses did day in and day out. I thought, 'I think I can do it.' She's an amazing nurse. I watched her journey. I thought I could do it. I don't think I ever gave her enough props.

"I was just fascinated, so excited to be back in science again, studying the human body. I have this passion and love for people. I get to advocate for people in their daily life day in and day out."

Harper became a registered nurse at Everett Community College, then earned a bachelor's of science in nursing from the University of Washington. She is also a Certified Emergency Nurse.

She began working at Providence in 2013 and served as an emergency room nurse there — the hospital is a Level II trauma center with a 79-bed emergency department — beginning in 2015. Just before she got pregnant with Dylan, she began rotating between the ER and the ICU.

"It was hard not to use my brain in that way anymore," Harper said of her time away from the hospital during her maternity leave. "I'm used to constant stimulation. Sometimes (being home) was uneventful, but hard at the same time because I had a newborn and a new experience.

"As soon as I went back to work, I felt whole again."

***

Harper and her family live about five blocks from the hospital. Paul is now retired from the Navy and serving as an equipment specialist at Puget Sound Naval Shipyard. During a recent telephone conversation, Harper described a picturesque view of Puget Sound and the Olympic Mountains in front of her and the Cascade Mountains behind her.

She comes back home about once a year, she said, to visit her family, including parents Jeannette and Dennis and sister Kate, who owns Five Zero Mane Salon in Noank.

"When I go home, I don't recognize anybody. I'm finally anonymous," she said with a laugh. "I miss being able to swim in the beaches. You can't swim in the water (in Washington); it's really, really cold. I don't mind the weather, but it does get to you. I miss the sunshine. Sometimes at home it's so cold you can't breathe, but the sun's still shining. I miss lobster and really good Italian food."

A three-sport athlete at East Lyme, also competing in softball and indoor track during her time as a Viking, Harper is still active, mainly directing her athleticism to running and hiking. She calls Paul "really funny," but begrudgingly admits that when they run half-marathons together, he can sign up the day before and beat her despite her months of training.

She said health care is very much a team sport, just like her days in goal.

"We all need each other. You have to communicate well," Harper said. "I feel like I keep living this out. Even in restaurants, there's always a common goal. It's always the communal work that is meaningful to me."

For Harper, the worst part of the pandemic has been the no-visitors policy — due to the potential spread of COVID-19 — of hospitals across the nation. In many cases, the nursing staff provides the only support for critical patients in isolation from their families.

She said her heart goes out to the nurses in the parts of the country, some of whom she is friends with on social media, who are now overwhelmed by coronavirus patients the way Washington was at the start.

"You hope we can take those experiences and learn from them," Harper said. "People are just kind of over it. But just because they're over it, doesn't mean the virus is going anywhere. People don't understand the gravity of it."

Until the highly contagious virus is no longer part of her daily life, Harper continues to enter her home through the basement door following a shift. She throws all of her clothes in the washer, then runs upstairs to the shower, a process she must complete before she can hold her 1-year-old son.

This is where all the pieces of her journey have led her: to serve.

"I like to do really hard things," she said. "I work in a high-pressure situation. When I played I was the catcher, the goalie, always the last one in line. I don't know if I liked it at the time.

"... I definitely have a service-oriented heart. That's my strength, I guess, my strength of service."

v.fulkerson@theday.com

Editor's note: This is the sixth story in an occasional series about former local athletes who went on to be part of the medical profession.

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