At home, Lauran Evans, a recent graduate of the University Nevada, Reno’s School of Medicine, slicks down her hair with gel and places it in a low-bun — it will not fall in her face this way and fits better in the hood of her protective gear.
She changes into a pair of scrubs and drives to a trailer near the Washoe Health District building. There, she puts on a plastic hazmat suit, duct tapes it around her feet and ankles as an emergency technician checks her vitals, dons a hood with an air filtration system hooked up to a battery pack attached to her back and then pulls on three pairs of gloves with the two innermost gloves taped to the sleeves of her suit at the wrist.
Most people only wear two gloves, but Evans did the math and with up to a five percent glove leak rate, she wants to take every preventative measure possible. She changes the outermost pair of gloves between patients.
After she’s suited up in what looks like a getup out of the 1960s TV show Lost in Space, she walks to the district’s drive-thru COVID-19 test site, where passengers sitting in a line of cars wait for her and another medical student, Morgan Derby, to test them for the virus.
“I have prior experience doing nasal pharyngeal procedures,” Evans said, referring to the test that entails sending a swab deep into a person’s nose to the back of their throat. “I think that I could really make a difference and hopefully let some of the nurses take a rest, have a day off and relax.”
Evans was the first medical student at the university to volunteer as a swabber at the district site at the Reno-Livestock Events Center, which has the capacity to do 150 tests an hour but is typically doing 250 a day. She started helping out in March after the university canceled in-person classes.
About 70 medical students are now volunteering as testers, babysitters and phone bankers through the Washoe County Health District, Reno’s Emergency Medical Services Authority (REMSA) and other providers.
As cars drive up for testing on a sunny Saturday morning, Evans and Derby spend a few minutes checking in with the patients, signing request forms and going over the benefits and risks of the test including pain, discomfort, watery eyes, gagging, vomiting, a bloody nose and sneezing.
Sometimes the patients laugh at the litany of predictable side effects from having a long, thin Q-tip-like rod slid through their nose and then rubbed around the area where the nose meets the back of the throat.
Other times, the patients nod stiffly at the warnings, fear in their eyes as they worry about what the test results could show or what happens next. In these cases, Evans will talk them through some yoga-like breathing or narrate each step of the process, trying to be more gentle, taking a little more time.
Usually, the entire process, including testing, takes three to four minutes, but sometimes it goes longer. Evans remembered one patient around her age who drove up to the site, tears welling, terrified of the process and the potential of catching COVID-19 through testing.
“I said, look, I'm here for you. We can do this together … That patient probably took about 15 minutes, but I walked her through every step of the way,” Evans said. “Ultimately we're here for the patient and we're here to help them. And if she's in tears, so scared, I want to help alleviate those fears.”
Derby often works alongside Evans and said that the patient interactions are the most meaningful parts of her day.
“Obviously [patients are] not very happy once we start swabbing them cause it's usually not the most comfortable, but it is always nice to be able to make them laugh or joke around with them at the end of it,” Derby said. “Just to give them that sense of reassurance that someone's out here and willing to take care of them.”
Along with testing people at the site, Derby regularly heads out with REMSA to test patients who are bed-bound or stuck at home. She said that she’s surprised by how appreciative these patients are and is glad she can help.
Lisa Lottritz, the division director for Washoe County Health District's Community and Clinical Health Services, said that she was grateful to the students who offered aid without hesitation and helped improve the testing process.
"Lauran took it upon herself to write a paper ... and had ideas on how we could improve at different areas of the operation, and then Morgan's doing something similar for the REMSA process," Lottritz said. "One thing I've noticed is when you're in the heat of the moment of doing this, we need to write it down, but who has the time to sit and write the process down, right?"
Next month, Evans will begin a residency program at the University of California, Los Angeles specializing in ear, nose and throat surgery.
Evans, who took an extra year to get a masters in public health and also focused her studies on epidemiology, said that the most frustrating part of the pandemic for her is watching the politicization of human lives and people ignoring medical professionals’ guidance.
Every night she loses sleep thinking about people dying from the virus and states reopening.
“It's become somehow a political idea where there is one side that agrees with wearing face masks and mandating people to stay home and mandating businesses to close, and then there's another side that says, ‘no, don't wear a face mask and you don't have to worry about the health of others,’” Evans said. “And if you care about other people, you would be doing everything you can to keep them safe, not just you safe.”
The virus hit even closer to home for her when her parents, who live in Las Vegas, caught COVID-19 and her stepfather had a temperature of 104 degrees and kidney failure. Luckily, her family members recovered, but Evans said it was frightening.
Another part of the pandemic that Evans has had to grapple with is the racism and discrimination that came from the virus’s origination in China. She’s half Japanese and said that whereas she can “pass” as white, her boyfriend, who is fully Japanese, has experienced more obvious discrimination.
“I think people just treat us differently when we go outside,” she said. “They look at us differently and they step away from us.”
Many in the ear, nose and throat specialty, also referred to as otolaryngologists, face a greater risk of catching, and dying from, COVID-19. Evans, who will be sprayed down with disinfectant at the end of her shift, knows the risk of the field she’s about to enter, but she says that’s not going to stop her.
“I've always been the person who wanted to dissect the little ant and see how everything worked, and then if you could fix that, that’s beyond imaginable,” she said. “These people need my help and I'm there for them.”