Cameron Buck was able to quit biting his nails during the month he recently spent in south Texas.

But while learning to embrace the precaution of not bringing his hands to his face, the Virginia Tech senior started a more painstaking practice, which he also hopes to soon leave behind.

“I was just not used to putting people in body bags, but it’s become more habitual just because of how bad this all is,” said Buck from his hotel room in McAllen, Texas, where he worked with COVID-19 patients in a hospital ICU. “I just really don’t want it to be like this at home. I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy to have this happen in their hometown.”

A systems biology major in the College of Science, Buck traveled to Hidalgo County, Texas, on July 1 to begin volunteering in hospitals swamped with COVID-19 patients. For the next month he worked consistent 12-hour shifts doing everything from basic medical and hygiene care to monitoring patients on ventilators and assisting with postmortem care.

While on the frontline of the global pandemic, it became helpful to remember his purpose and the community he had behind him. He said that was a big reason he spent every day wearing a scrub cap adorned with the “flying VT.”

“So, especially when things sucked and we were losing one patient after another, I’m just reminded by it of why I’m doing this,” Buck said. “It reminds me of why I’m here and that I have the support of Virginia Tech as a whole because that [Ut Prosim] is what we go by. That’s what we live by.”

No stranger to volunteering, Buck earned his EMT certificate during his senior year of high school in his hometown, Richmond, Virginia. He joined the Blacksburg Volunteer Rescue Squad in 2018 and also volunteers back home with Forest View Volunteer Rescue Squad.

David English ’07, chief of the Blacksburg squad, said Buck’s willingness to volunteer in Texas was characteristic of Buck and the other Blacksburg volunteers.

“The people here, and he's definitely one of them, have a willingness to step up when it's needed,” English said. “His general attitude is that he’s always trying to find ways to help.”

Hospital workers
Buck (second from right) spent the majority of his time working in ICUs specifically dedicated to patients with COVID-19. Photo courtesy of Cameron Buck.

Buck said it was his father, Jason Buck, an emergency room nurse, who inspired his volunteerism and his plan to attend medical school after graduation.

“He’s the one that got me interested in the medical field and he’s the one who made me want to be an EMT,” said Buck.

His father is also the one who inspired him to travel to Texas to help. Jason Buck spent time volunteering in New York when it was considered a COVID-19 “hot spot” in the spring and was already heading to Texas when his son joined the effort.

“I really thought, well a lot of people can talk about making a difference, but I really want to take that step forward and actually be making a difference,” Buck said.

He said he felt a combination of excitement and anxiety as he and his father made the 25-hour drive to the southernmost region of Texas. Having had just a handful of encounters suspected to be COVID-19 while working in Blacksburg, he tried to prepare himself for the far more dire situation.  

“I really didn’t know what to expect, honestly,” Buck said. “I don’t think anybody truly understands how it is or how crazy this virus is until you work in a hot spot and until you see patients go from sitting up and talking to you with a mild cough and a little difficulty speaking to being fully ventilated and sedated the next day.”

Such experiences became commonplace during the next month of daily 12-hour shifts, each spent layered head to toe in PPE and assisting hospital staff in any way possible. Hurricane Hanna’s July 25 landfall brought an additional challenge, as the relief for Buck’s unit wasn’t able to reach the hospital and resulted in a more than 22-hour shift in the ICU.

“I just remember [once the shift ended] my hotel’s power was out and I was eating a Pop-Tart almost in tears because I was so tired,” Buck said. “We got four or five hours to sleep and then we were told to come downstairs and that we needed to go back to work that night. It’s like, you blink your eyes and you’re back at work.”

Still, the physical toll was far from the most challenging part of the experience.

“I think the hardest part of this whole thing is seeing somebody’s wife or husband have to talk to them on Facetime minutes before they pass away,” Buck said. “That hurts, but it makes me try my hardest as a health care provider to make sure I see my patients as not just patients, they’re not just a bed number, they’re human beings that have people who love and care for them, just like you and me.

“I really think it has made me a more compassionate, not just heath care provider, but person,” he said.

On Aug. 1, after testing negative for the virus as a precaution, Buck traveled home to spend some time before returning to Blacksburg to begin his senior year and a part-time job with the Radford City Fire and Rescue Department. He said he hopes his experience can serve as a cautionary tale, especially for those who may not fully understand the seriousness and the reach of the pandemic.

“I recently had a patient who was 21 years old. Seven days younger than me and he will probably pass away from this virus,” Buck said. “You hear a lot about elderly people, but it’s hurting younger people too. People need to realize it’s for real, and this is real life for a lot of people.”

— Written by Travis Williams