For 10 weeks, Miss Marina del Rey hung up her sash and put on her scrubs to fight COVID on the front lines

By Kellie Chudzinski

Miss Marina del Rey Rachel Thompson dons a face shield and mask to treat COVID patients at Cedars-Sinai in Beverly Hills

When 2020 started Rachel Thompson was pushing her comfort zone and preparing for her first pageant ever as Miss Marina del Rey.

Just over a month after she placed as the third runner-up at the Miss California competition, the COVID-19 pandemic started in the U.S., and Los Angeles went on lockdown.

Thompson decided to give back and get back to her nursing roots in the ICU. Before the pandemic, she worked as an aesthetic nurse. But initially, after graduating from ASU’s Mayo Clinic nursing program, she worked as a liver transplant ICU nurse at UCLA Medical Center.

In March, Thompson signed up with a nursing placement group that was scheduling nurses to work in centers with great need during the pandemic. Just weeks later, in May, she started a 10-week assignment at Cedars-Sinai in Beverly Hills, working with COVID-19 patients in the ICU.

“At a time where all of us felt really hopeless and scared, I was sitting at home with nothing to do,” she said of her decision. “I want[ed] to go use the skills and talents I have to help during this time because it was fulfilling on my end as well.”

Thompson worked 12-hours a day, four days a week, rotating between patients in critical condition at the hospital. Nurses were limited to two patients a day and worked with a new set every shift.

While discussing pandemic training taught in school, Thompson compared the experience of working in a COVID ward to “a fire drill and then if there’s an actual fire,” as health care professionals worked to adapt to the situation constantly.

Most of her patients needed constant care and observation, as they were intubated, with tubing and machines helping them breathe. Many others were also in need of intensive medical care, including dialysis, among other measures.

At the time and currently, the public and health care professionals are still learning about COVID-19 and at-risk groups. Thompson said most of her patients were relatively young, and none had the severe pre-existing conditions (e.g., heart conditions, COPD) that many associate with being at greater risk for contracting the virus. But all did deal with “mild” pre-exisiting conditions that many may not think about twice (high blood pressure, diabetes or being overweight).

“That to me was a big eye-opener,” said Thompson. “Almost all of us have some type of pre-existing condition.”

A recent CDC report confirmed that 94% of people who have died from COVID-19 had some form of “contributing condition,” and only 6% had no health problems before the virus.

“I think what’s frustrating to me… is how political this entire thing has gotten,” Thompson said. “The people taking care of the patients, no one is talking about politics. Everyone’s worried about actual facts about the science behind it.”

Due to measures put in place in hospitals, patients weren’t allowed visitors, which struck an emotional chord with Thomspon.

“That was really hard,” she said. “It was really hard for me to watch because they were all alone all-day.”

Along with pounds of protective material nurses in the COVID-19 ICU were required to wear, the hospital also limited their exposure time spent with patients and the number of medical staff allowed in each room, even in emergency conditions.

“It’s not like we can go in there with them for hours on end,” Thompson said. “I felt really bad for the patients…I can’t imagine being hospitalized, and I couldn’t have any family there.”

During her two and a half months working with critical patients, Thompson did isolate herself at home. She sent her boyfriend home to live with his parents as a precaution, “I didn’t know how easy it would be to transmit to his older parents.”

After her time in the ICU, Thompson returned home to isolate for two-weeks before returning to a nursing job in aesthetics.

“I truly felt really lucky to be in a position that I was able to help,” she said about returning to her “normal” life. “I still have so much appreciation for all the health care professionals still doing it because I was exhausted after just a few weeks.”