Just like nearly everyone else, the COVID-19 pandemic has tossed Nicole Dann-Payne's life on its ear.

But she's putting on a smile and trying her best to get through it.

Nicole Dann-Payne Dann-Payne, a faculty member in IUP's Department of Food and Nutrition, has spent the past four weeks helping the staff at Indiana Regional Medical Center. She has been screening people who come there seeking treatment, looking for signs and symptoms showing they could have the coronavirus (COVID-19). She has also spent time going to larger companies in the county and screening workers there, hoping to cut off any spreading of the virus.

“It was so strange when all this started,” she said. “I never imagined doing this, that's for sure.”

Dann-Payne got involved in this because of her secondary job, a part-time position as a registered dietitian nutritionist in IRMC's Institute for Healthy Living and Corporate Wellness.

“I'm happy to do it,” she said. “It's an important job to protect our community and to protect our patients in the hospital and to protect the hospital employees. I definitely felt scared because it was new, and I didn't know what to expect. But I knew it had to be done.”

When the pandemic began spreading rapidly and businesses and schools started shutting down across the state, officials at IRMC reassigned Dann-Payne, and she soon started screening people 25 to 30 hours a week.

Nicole Dann-Payne at the screening center in front of IRMC“The other dietitians and I had outpatient consultations scheduled, and many of our patients started canceling their appointments,” she said. “Within two days or so, our supervisor said we were shutting down. The hospital's wellness center had closed and then our service through the Institute for Healthy Living did, too. Our supervisor was able to find work for us, and we were some of the first IRMC employees to start screening patients.”

It's not a job that comes easily for Dann-Payne. Although she doesn't spend much time with each person she sees, the possibility of being exposed to the virus that has already killed nearly 30,000 people in the United States is a heavy burden.

She said the fear is on her mind the moment she starts work and doesn't leave even when she does. It even stays with her on days off.

“It's something that you have to try to set aside,” she said. “Before I go to work, I try to practice mindfulness. I think about what I'm grateful for and try to be positive. I am so grateful that I have a job and that I am able to continue work for IUP and the hospital because I know so many people have lost their jobs.”

The danger she faces every time she works at IRMC is very real. But what keeps her going is her understanding that people are needed on the front line to help lessen the chance of the virus spreading.

It's a responsibility she takes seriously.

“I know what we are doing is important,” she said. “We're trying to help our community.”

Dann-Payne said she has been given no indication of how long her new assignment could last. That's another part that's difficult—that the end isn't necessarily in sight.

IUP Student Assistance Fund Until it ends, she will stay on the job. Her work could save the life of a person infected, and it might also save the lives of people who that person could come in contact with.

Dann-Payne is also continuing her work at IUP. She's teaching all her courses online the rest of the semester, and she understands it's a difficult situation for her students who, just a few weeks ago, were looking forward to coming back to campus after spring break.

After all, her recent experiences have shown that nothing is certain right now.

“I'm totally understanding of them and what they're going through,” said. “I'm trying to be flexible with my students.”

For the time being, Dann-Payne will continue teaching her students online during the day and moonlighting at night combating the COVID-19 pandemic. She said having compassion has helped her during these challenging times.

“I try my best to be nice and friendly and be as empathetic as I can be,” she said, “because you don't know what they're going through or what they're feeling.”