SAN DIEGO — Just six months out of nursing school, new graduate nurse Matthew Saunders found himself on the front lines of the coronavirus fight.
During a time of uncertainty, Saunders stepped up and volunteered to care for the first patient admitted to Sharp Grossmont Hospital for suspected COVID-19.
The ICU nurse has continued to care for patients in the COVID unit since then.
"I'm young. I'm healthy, and I figured if anybody wanted to do it, or was willing to do it, I wanted that to be me," he explained.
He knew more people would be contracting the virus, and he wanted to be in the forefront of it for his hospital unit.
Saunders welcomes the steep learning curve.
"Being new, I'm getting a lot of exposure really quick," he said. "As the patients get more critical throughout their stay, I'm getting to follow the process and learn a lot along the way."
Saunders said he has been able to develop essential skills while caring for the sickest coronavirus patients, who would typically be assigned to more experienced nurses.
Part of his care involves specialty beds that turn patients prone, face-down, which has been shown to improve oxygenation and survival rates.
When I asked if he was concerned about his own health and safety, he replied, "No, we have the equipment to protect us."
"Actually, It's nice knowing that you are caring for somebody that actually does have the virus, because you take the proper precautions," he reflected. "I think it's a lot scarier to go to a grocery store or out in public, because you really don't know who does or who doesn't have it and you're not usually as well protected."
For that reason, Saunders and his fiance decided it wasn't necessary for them to live apart.
They had previously discussed her moving in with family.
"As long as you're wearing a mask, you're not touching your face and you're really conscious about washing your hands, we figure the risk is pretty low," he sad.
During our interview, I found Saunders to have the type of quiet confidence that I found to be pretty incredible for a new nurse. As I continued to ask him questions, I finally discovered the likely reason.
Saunders has life experience on a different kind of front line, as a U.S. Marine.
He was a Reconnaissance Marine for four years in the 1st Reconnaissance Battalion based on Camp Pendleton, and had one seven month deployment to Afghanistan.
Saunders believes his years of military training have helped him become a better nurse; he's able to focus on patient care and drown out distractions, like restrictive personal protective equipment
"Wearing a gown is like wearing a trash bag. You're sweating under it, it doesn't breathe, and wearing a mask is uncomfortable," he said, explaining it's one extra thing to overcome in order to complete your tasks and to get through the shift.
Saunders said he doesn't really notice the PPE when he's working, however, and links that back to his time in the military when he would wear heavy gear for hours, even days.
The new graduate nurse is grateful to be working in the Medical ICU at Sharp Grossmont Hospital.
When News 8 was looking to feature exceptional local nurses, Saunders' superiors nominated him.
They told us: "Matthew is a graduate nurse who is as clinically strong as he is kind. He has quickly grown into a strong ICU nurse, earning respect from senior staff. Matt volunteered to care for the first COVID patients, where he confidently and carefully delivered exceptional care, and still does today."
To that Saunders replied, "I'm appreciative of it. I didn't expect it at all."
"I don't feel like I stood out above anybody else. Everybody there is doing really great work, and it's not one individual. There are so many people helping you care for that one patient, and so really, it's a group effort."
Sharp Grossmont Hospital holds a special place in his heart for another reason; it's where he was born. Just last month, he spent a milestone birthday there, while ending his night shift.
"I was born at 6:15 a.m. and thought, '30 years ago I was born here.' I think it's interesting, I came all the way around."
Saunders said his future plans include circling back to military life and helping save lives as a Flight Nurse in the Air Force Reserve.
"Let's say a guy gets wounded in Afghanistan, and they need further care, so you'll have nurses and doctors on board to get them where they need to go, and that's hopefully where I'd be."
Saunders will be caring for those who serve, two centuries after nursing pioneer Florence Nightingale cared for wounded soldiers. His story is the final one in our Nurses Week series highlighting the dedication and sacrifices of nurses.
The week ends annually on May 12th to mark Nightingale's birthday.
She was born in 1820, so this milestone year marks her 200th birthday.