A Life of Service: Balancing COVID-19 Response and Clinical Instruction

Darlene “Cookie” Wilson

On Monday April 6th, UT Austin School of Nursing Clinical Instructor Darlene “Cookie” Wilson began a thirteen week assignment serving at the epicenter of the United States’ COVID-19 epidemic, Elmhurst Hospital in Queens, New York. A hospital located in a densely populated, working class neighborhood, Elmhurst has been hit particularly hard by the virus.

When word spread that New York City hospitals were struggling to handle the influx of patients, Cookie Wilson did not wait to be recruited. Despite concerns, Cookie took to social media looking for ways to volunteer. Her West Point Academy women’s alumnae group was quick to put her in contact with the right people.

According to Cookie, her West Point education shaped her deep commitment to public service. “The mission of the military academy is to create leaders of service for the nation. I think most of us take that very seriously. It's not that I am altruistic, it's that I consider service to our nation as my personal responsibility.” Said Professor Wilson.

As a former helicopter pilot and veteran of two wars, Cookie is the first to tell you that running into crisis and assisting the most vulnerable is her calling. In fact, it was her deployment to Desert Storm that convinced her to pursue a nursing education. Upon her return home she entered the School of Nursing’s Alternate Entry Master's Program (a curriculum designed for non-traditional students) and earned her graduate degree.

Before her program ended, Cookie was employed as an emergency room clinician at a local hospital. Shortly thereafter, she began teaching part-time clinical classes at The University of Texas Austin. Cookie emphasizes that her students and fellow Austin nurses are a big reason she feels inclined to serve at Elmhurst. “These are unique times and while working in New York will be difficult, there are many lessons I will be able to bring back to my health care community. I have promised my boss that I will develop training classes for my fellow ER nurses.”

However, Cookie stresses that this trip is not just about training nurses back at home but also supporting the clinicians already working in New York. Seeing so many younger nurses that are scared and overwhelmed has left an impact on her. She would like to serve as a mentor to remind nurses this is what they have been training for, and that she is there for them the same way UT is there for her.

The UT Austin School of Nursing is supportive of Wilson volunteering especially as she remains committed to teaching her Tuesday classes. “I don’t think anyone was surprised by Cookie’s decision to go to New York.” Said Alexa Stuifbergen, Dean of the School of Nursing. “This is who she is. I don’t know of another health care professional that is better suited to walk into Elmhurst Hospital and support the patients, no matter the situation. We are very proud of her.”

When it comes to assisting patients battling through a health crisis like COVID-19, Cookie said it's a privilege to assist them through a fight or a transition. She believes it's the core to a service in nursing, and right now, it's the type of service our nation requires of her.

May 6, 2020