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When Lt. Col. David Shoemaker retired after 20 years of active duty in the U.S. Army as a microbiologist helping to develop medical products for the Department of Defense, he decided to go back to nursing school and chose the University of Southern Maine.
The Portland resident is scheduled to graduate in August from the 15-month program he started last year. But in the meantime, he’s working part-time as a certified nursing assistant, lending his services to what has become one of Maine’s coronavirus hotspots — the Maine Veterans’ Homes facility in Scarborough. The 125-bed home is one of six long-term care facilities in the state that’s facing an outbreak of the highly contagious coronavirus that has spread easily in nursing homes throughout the country.
In March, University of Maine System Chancellor Dannel Malloy sent out an email listing opportunities for students and staff to help out during the coronavirus pandemic. Shoemaker, who has only been certified as a CNA for a month, responded to offer his services, and the university system followed up with him first.
Shoemaker is one of 193 nursing students and faculty members from across the university system who have volunteered to work in hospitals, nursing homes and other health care settings that need them as those facilities find themselves on the front lines of fighting COVID-19 in Maine.
Some of those who signed up recently received their first assignments — to help out at the veterans’ home in Scarborough and Tall Pines Retirement and Healthcare Community in Belfast, another of the long-term care facilities hard hit by the coronavirus.
As of Friday, 53 coronavirus cases had been recorded at the veterans’ home, with 32 residents and 21 staff members infected. Tall Pines had seen 43 cases — 32 among residents and 11 among staff. Twelve Maine Veterans’ Homes residents have died from the virus while 11 Tall Pines residents have.
With infected staff members unable to work and other staff members choosing not to work, the facilities have needed to find people to take employees’ places in an industry that has trouble filling positions in normal times.
“CNA work is humble work. It’s not about developing a new vaccine, a new drug or a new diagnostic test,” Shoemaker said. “It’s helping someone bathe and brush their teeth. It’s feeding someone who can’t feed themselves. It’s taking someone to the bathroom and getting them cleaned up.”
Shoemaker had his first shift on Thursday, during which he trained for the work to come. As of Friday, he had three more, eight-hour shifts scheduled for the next week-and-a-half. He appreciates the chance to serve fellow veterans, he said.
“What really strikes me is that it’s really about caring for some very special human beings,” he said. “And as a veteran, it’s very humbling for me to serve these veterans, some of whom are in the sunset years of their lives.”
Dan Demeritt, a University of Maine System spokesman, said Shoemaker was called first to help at the veterans’ home because of his status as a veteran and “expertise with infectious agents.”
While the coronavirus outbreak in the Scarborough home has steadily grown since late March, it has been contained to one of four living units, according to an April 23 statement from Maine Veterans’ Homes.
Although Shoemaker volunteered to work in the unit where patients have tested positive, he was assigned to one of the others, where residents and staff have tested negative.
But he still dons personal protective equipment to do the job as a precaution. The most stressful part of the job, he said, is getting accustomed to wearing the protective gear for hours at a time.
“It is physically hard. It’s just wearing the PPE that we need to wear makes doing the job more difficult,” he said. “And when everybody has these masks and face shields and gowns on, I think it inadvertently stresses some of the veterans just because they can’t see the same familiar faces that they typically see, because you’ve got a mask across half your face.”
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