Editor’s Note: During these unprecedented times dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, there are UTRGV employees, faculty and staff who are making history. Without hesitation, these employees are stepping up to the front lines of the outbreak to help mitigate the virus from spreading throughout their communities. The Newsroom at UTRGV has created a new series to recognize the efforts and bravery of these individuals.


  Wednesday, October 7, 2020
  Community

By Amanda Alaniz

RIO GRANDE VALLEY, TEXAS – OCT. 7, 2020 – Being a nurse isn’t a job, it’s a calling.

One group of UTRGV nursing professors echoed that vocation theme recently during interviews about their work to, very literally, answer the call.

Five UTRGV nursing professors volunteered during the spring and summer months at the UT Health RGV COVID-19 Patient Call Center in Harlingen, answering calls from frightened people, asking key questions and processing critical information.

Nurses to the core, they wanted to find a way to respond to the needs of a population hit hard by the pandemic and found that courage and resilience were the orders of the day. 

The nurses are:  

  • Luz Maria Silva, MSN, RN, clinical associate professor, UTRGV School of Nursing.  
  • Velma Huges, MSN, RN, PMHNP, psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner program coordinator, interim special assignment faculty, clinical assistant professor, School of Nursing.  
  • Margaret Rubi, MSN, RN, clinical assistant professor, School of Nursing.  
  • Dr. Eloisa G. Tamez, RN, FAAN, professor in the School of Nursing and associate dean for Student Affairs.  
  • Sharon Helsley-McGinley, MSN, RN, clinical associate professor, School of Nursing.  

At the start of the pandemic, when UT Health RGV opened its COVID-19 testing sites on UTRGV campuses across the Valley, demand to be tested swelled from people who believed they might have contracted the virus. The need for level heads and calm demeanors from the call center staff taking those calls was obvious from the start. 

“In spite of whatever dangerous situations we nurses go into, we don’t stand back, we keep going forward. And that’s been shown all over the nation, how nurses went ahead and served the public, because that is the essence of our license,” Tamez said. “Our license to practice is to safeguard the health of the public.” 

Rubi said they always tell their students to be stalwart.  

“From the very beginning, we tell them, ‘Do not be afraid, just keep going forward,’” she said. 

It was advice they would themselves follow, as the calls for screening began pouring in. 

ANSWERING THE CALL 

As university professors, they had a chance again to practice nursing through helping at the call center, during a time when they were most needed, Helsley-McGinley said.  

“We got to do assessments and screenings and that made us feel like we were contributing to the COVID battle,” she said. “Things were fluidly changing day to day. We wanted a little participation and control to be part of it, to help our community. And this gave us that venue to be a nurse and be a community member and do something for the common good, at a time when this crisis had so many questions and not many answers.” 

The professors said they were able to address every single call that came into the center in the beginning. However, when cases spiked dramatically and thousands of calls were coming in each day, they struggled to get through each and every call.  

At one point, Rubi said, the call centers were receiving about 10,000 calls a day.  

The calls ranged from fearful parents to worried spouses. Rubi said she had a call from a crying wife who was concerned after her husband was diagnosed. She talked to the caller to calm her down and get information and helped her get an appointment to be tested.  

“So, if you can imagine the frustration – by the time you get to these calls, it’s totally exacerbated. They’re upset, worried, scared. We, as volunteers, have a multirole because we have to calm them down. And as nurses, we’re able at least to help address their symptoms and ask a few more questions about what’s going on with them. It’s really a plus to have us, as nurses, to help them,” she said.  

Silva said that, in the beginning, they noticed they were receiving more calls from frontline workers, like health professionals, EMTs, firefighters and police officers, who had been exposed to the virus.  

They were able to use their nursing knowledge to tell the callers what to do and take note of their symptoms.  

‘A PERSON THAT I KNEW’ 

Each nurse had a moment when the reality of the pandemic set in. For Helsley-McGinley, it was the moment a former colleague called the center to ask about getting tested.  

“I answered the phone at the call center, and it was actually a fellow nurse. A voice, a person that I knew. And then it hit me,” she said. “I think the disease became very real for me at that moment. This was not impacting anonymous community members. It was impacting our nursing profession.”  

For Huges, getting a call from a fellow nurse she had worked with made her “stand on guard.” As she did when she received a call from a person who delivered pizza to her.  

“The pizza delivery driver called in and said his co-worker tested positive, so now he was going to have to get tested. And I thought, ‘Oh, gosh, I just did a transaction with this person.’ You just start putting pieces together and it’s a normal human instinct,” Huges said. “I had to get tested and I was negative, thankfully. But it was scary.” 

Silva said most of them know someone who has or has had the virus. One person close to her became very ill but recovered. So, she often stresses the importance of taking precautions like washing your hands, wearing a mask and physical distancing to help mitigate the spread of the virus.  

“I really emphasize people should wash their hands properly. Don’t just rinse them. Get some soap, spend at least 20 seconds washing them really well. And then rinse them,” she said. “Wash your hands frequently, try not to touch your face when you sneeze or cough. Wear a mask in public and keep the distance. That’s my advice.”   

WHAT DOES IT MEAN BEING A NURSE? 

All five of them will tell you they are not just nurses, but also educators of future nurses, and also recognize the importance of educating the community.  

Rubi said that, as nurses and educators, they’re equipped to help teach the community. They all carry their licenses, the knowledge and the experience of one of the most trusted professions. 

Huges recalled the sleepless nights, worrying about patients. In nursing school, they teach you to not get close to patients, but it’s difficult to avoid not building a nurse-patient relationship.  

“Being a nurse is not a job, it’s a calling,” Huges said. “And you have to have trust not only yourself and your instincts, but you also need to have the patients trust you and your colleagues. We’re communicators. We’re educators. And we’re compassionate individuals.” 

Helsley-McGinley said 2020 is particularly special for nurses. The World Health Organization designated the year as the “International Year of the Nurse and Nurse Midwife,” and she has seen many positive accolades for nurses, especially during the pandemic.  

“Through COVID, we’ve been escalated to the level of being called heroes, which is humbling. But this is what we were called to do. This is my 40th year as a registered nurse,” she said. “I can’t imagine doing anything else but nursing.” 

For Rubi, being a nurse is many things and she cherishes all that it means.  

“A nurse is the epitome of support, the helper, the advocate. You have to have passion. It’s your everything, to be able to take care of people and to help them to get them better,” she said as tears welled in her eyes. “I am so proud and honored to be part of this phenomenal profession.” 



ABOUT UTRGV

The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley (UTRGV) was created by the Texas Legislature in 2013 as the first major public university of the 21st century in Texas. This transformative initiative provided the opportunity to expand educational opportunities in the Rio Grande Valley, including a new School of Medicine, and made it possible for residents of the region to benefit from the Permanent University Fund – a public endowment contributing support to the University of Texas System and other institutions.

UTRGV has campuses and off-campus research and teaching sites throughout the Rio Grande Valley including in Boca Chica Beach, Brownsville (formerly The University of Texas at Brownsville campus), Edinburg (formerly The University of Texas-Pan American campus), Harlingen, McAllen, Port Isabel, Rio Grande City, and South Padre Island. UTRGV, a comprehensive academic institution, enrolled its first class in the fall of 2015, and the School of Medicine welcomed its first class in the summer of 2016.