Nursing student travels to the Big Easy to assist FEMA during pandemic

Nursing major Ray Dugan has been working as a FEMA contractor since late March.
By: Josh McAuliffe

DUNMORE, Pa. – The need to serve comes naturally to Ray Dugan.

It led him to become a paramedic right out of high school, and to eventually return to the classroom to pursue his bachelor’s degree in nursing at Penn State Scranton.

And, it was certainly there when he made the decision to leave his family, home and job to assist the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in its efforts to combat the COVID-19 coronavirus.

Since late March, the senior nursing student has been in New Orleans working as a FEMA contractor on behalf of the Louisiana Department of Health.

At first, Dugan was deployed to New Orleans’ Morial Convention Center, which FEMA converted into a field hospital. There, his primary responsibility was “doffing,” the methodical procedure of removing healthcare workers’ PPE to prohibit the disbursement of virus particulates. In addition, he was certified to “fit test” workers’ N95 masks to ensure proper sealing of the respirator’s facepiece.

In early May, the Ledgedale, Wayne County resident was moved to the Roosevelt New Orleans, A Waldorf Astoria Hotel, where he was part of the force protection team tasked with keeping his fellow FEMA workers healthy. Now, nearly three months into his stay, he’s back at the convention center, helping to admit and discharge COVID patients.

In between his regular 12-hour shifts, Dugan somehow managed to finish his spring semester coursework remotely and begin studying for his nursing licensure test.

No doubt, it’s been a grueling yet deeply gratifying experience for Dugan, who holds a 3.45 GPA and is the recipient of the campus’ Grace Keen Memorial Scholarship, a scholarship specifically for qualifying students from Wayne County, PA who are enrolled in the nursing program at Penn State Scranton, 

“Being at the convention center now is completely different than when I was here in April. I was in the tent performing doffing and would only occasionally see patients from afar when they were being discharged or sent out for dialysis,” said Dugan, 27. “Now, I get to talk with these patients. I get to find out their stories and what their lives were like before COVID. They’re beacons of strength and hope and make it worth getting out of bed every day at 0450. To have the honor and privilege of moving these patients out of this facility to move on with their lives, happy and healthy, is a feeling like I’ve never experienced. … I wouldn’t change it for the world, given the positive impact we’re making here.”

Dugan was working as a paramedic for Commonwealth Health when the coronavirus first started to spread locally. Like many others, he didn’t take the threat seriously at first.

“I’d be the first to tell you, I laughed it off. I thought it would be more like the flu,” he said. “But then I started seeing the changes at the hospitals, the tents going up, the masks. Eventually, we had to wear the N95 mask on every call, with the thinking that anyone could be a COVID patient.”  

Eventually, it got to the point that Dugan’s brother, Matthew, suggested he begin staying in a hotel out of fear that his job could put their father, Raymond, and sister, Reilly, at risk for infection.

Right around that time, though, Dugan came across a FEMA advertisement calling for healthcare workers to volunteer in COVID hot spots throughout the country.

Born in Brooklyn and raised on Staten Island, Dugan figured he would be sent to New York City. Instead, FEMA gave him 12 hours to book a flight and get to New Orleans.

Moved to serve a cause greater than himself, Dugan left his job and family and hopped on a plane, figuring he’d be gone for about three weeks at the most.

Once in New Orleans, Dugan was unsure what role paramedics like himself would play at the convention center.

“I said, ‘Just let me know what has to be done, and I’ll make it happen,’” he said. “With doffing, people would come in thinking they had it down. But, it’s an evidence-based practice, and the evidence is showing us this is how to do it, as far as removing the gown, gloves and mask. We were like the last line of defense there.”

Meanwhile, Dugan took every opportunity to soak up information from the nurses in his group.

“A lot of the nurses are like, ‘Wow, you’re really into this.’ But, this is something I really want to do,” he said.

It wasn’t always that way.

Upon graduating from Scranton Preparatory School, Dugan had little interest in nursing or even college. Instead, he opted to become a paramedic because it would provide him with the opportunity to serve people in distress.

Indeed, it’s been a rewarding career for the former Pennsylvania Army National Guard member, who has gone on to earn his flight paramedic certification and an associate degree in emergency medical services from Lackawanna College.

“I like that no day is ever the same,” Dugan said of the job. “You never know what you’re going to get. It could be really slow, and then the next minute there’s a 12-car pileup on the interstate. And I love learning – I learn something on every call.”

Dugan’s career outlook changed course when his late mother, Karen, was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Watching the dedicated staff of nurses who tended to her, he thought, “I think I want to do that.”

Ever since arriving at Penn State Scranton in the fall of 2018, Dugan has found the nursing program to be a rigorous, collegial and highly collaborative environment. In addition to tutoring fellow students, he’s offered the faculty input on the annual Nittany Lion Free Children’s Health Fair, and, prior to the pandemic, he had been scheduled to give a CPR training workshop at the campus.

“Ray is a very organized student and was able to keep up with all class assignments and exams. And, he recently offered to tutor students for pharmacology in the fall,” said Theresa Baker, instructor in nursing.

“Mr. Dugan is a responsible, dedicated nursing student, willing to go the extra mile in assisting fellow classmates’ goals for academic success,” added Dr. Milton Evans, associate teaching professor in nursing and program coordinator.

Dugan said Evans, Baker and the other nursing faculty members have been “fantastic” to work with.

“We have a great relationship, and they treat me like a professional, because of my background,” he said. “For me sometimes, the biggest thing is to step back from my role as a paramedic and be a student. There’s open discussion, and I can bring up something from work. I learn something from them every day. And they’re accessible. I can walk into Milt or Instructor Baker’s office at any time to talk to them.”

Already, Dugan has his eye on the future. He intends to get his master’s degree in nursing through Penn State's World Campus, and can see himself ultimately becoming a flight nurse for the Navy.

Right now, though, he’s looking forward to returning home and eventually to the campus, the place where his promising future began.

“As it turns out, I stepped into one of the best things that’s ever happened to me,” Dugan said. “For me, being a nurse is taking care of someone else’s mother, someone else’s daughter, someone else’s sister. That’s what I want to do.”