By Nikki Ross Inda - May 15, 2021
For Alexandra Houston, serving her country is in her DNA. Her father is a retired U.S. Army pilot, and she enlisted in the Army directly out of high school in 2008.
“I joined the military to challenge myself as an individual and to help gain some skills before choosing a career path,” said Houston.
That career path would eventually be nursing.
“The military paid for my nursing school which was a huge blessing,” Houston shared. “I was in training for a year or so. Training is longer for those in the medical field.”
The training Houston received would soon be tested when she was deployed to Iraq as a combat medic.
“We lost some good soldiers,” said Houston. “It was a definite learning experience on what I could handle and how to compartmentalize things that were tough to get the job done.”
In 2014, Houston transitioned from active duty to a full-time reservist. The lessons she learned during training and deployment helped shaped her nursing career.
“I carry those experiences with me daily,” Houston said. “It has allowed me to remain calm during crisis in the nursing unit, being able to keep others calm during a code blue. The Army taught me to show empathy to every patient because they are fighting small battles of their own, which is especially important for our patients here at Moffitt.”
But no amount of experience and training could have fully prepared Houston for another kind of combat – a global pandemic.
Houston received a call in March 2020 from military personnel alerting her to check her email. She was being deployed but didn’t know the mission. “I don’t know that I had time to think or feel. I just immediately started packing and advised my team that I was leaving and wasn’t sure how long I would be gone,” she said.
The next day, she was on a flight to Kentucky, leaving her partner, Aleida, and two stepchildren, nine-year-old DJ and seven-year-old Aiden, behind.
After a two-week quarantine and debriefing measures, Houston and a team of about 85 physicians, nurses, medics and ancillary staff headed to Newark, New Jersey to work at University Hospital.
It was like a war zone. The community hospital was severely under resourced, and when Houston’s team arrived, the nursing staff cried and thanked them for coming to help. The hospital had an overwhelming number of COVID-19 cases, including many employees who were out sick. Many hospital employees died during the pandemic, including the director of Nursing.
“My role for this mission was to serve as the non-commissioned officer in charge of nursing services. I was responsible for all the nurses on our team. So, I’m not sure I slept the entire mission,” Houston recalled.
Caring for nine patients herself, Houston felt like she was drowning almost every shift and tried to keep her patients from drowning with her. Teamwork was the only way any of them made it through this mission.
“It was a heavy setting,” said Houston. “After each shift, you felt the weight of what you just experienced, so we looked out for one another.”
Houston’s team was also tasked with morgue duty due to the large number of deaths and lack of space.
“We moved bodies off of the refrigerated truck and from the small hospital morgue to a larger morgue,” said Houston. “As morbid as it sounds, it was an honor to know that we were doing our best to respect these people and we were some of the last people to be with them.”
Houston said she drew strength from her family. Her two stepsons would send pictures and banners that she hung up in her hotel room. And thanks to technology, she was able to join them for family dinners via FaceTime. The deployment lasted for nearly four months.
In September 2020, Houston joined Moffitt Cancer Center as a float nurse, eventually becoming the assistant manager of the Blood Draw Clinic. While her experience with COVID-19 patients changed her, it has made her into the nurse she is today.
“I have a passion for caring for others who are going through difficult times,” Houston shared. “It really does bring me joy to make a difference in people’s lives and Moffitt has some of the greatest patients I have encountered. They are inspiring because many of them are going through something we can’t imagine and yet they are always smiling.”
Houston has served for 13 years and plans to remain in the Army until she reaches the 20-25-year milestone.