Lucy O’Neal working at the Ocracoke Health Center. Photo by Nicole O’Neal

I ran into Lucy on the Health Center’s porch during the flu shot clinic a few weeks ago. While prepping my arm, with a bit of mild apprehension, I asked, “When are you going to stick that needle in?” “I already did,” she said.

By Peter Vankevich

Homecoming can be a meaningful term for experiences far beyond a college football game.  Such is the case with Lucy O’Neal’s return to Ocracoke to her dream – and very challenging – new job begun in July.

O’Neal is a clinical registered nurse and joins Amanda (Mandi) Cochran, RN, at the Ocracoke Health Center.

Dr. Erin Baker is elated with her new team member at a much-needed time.

“We are so happy to have her,” Baker said. “With the pandemic raging throughout the country, though largely sparing Ocracoke–at least for now–and the oncoming influenza season, she could not have come at a better time.”

O’Neal grew up on Ocracoke, graduating from high school in 2015 in a class of just six students.  Many recall her as one of the Lady Dolphins greatest basketball stars. During her playing years, the team, coached by Adam Burleson, won more than 65 games, captured two conference championships and qualified for the state playoffs four times. As a sophomore, she won the Conference Player of the Year award and held school records for scoring, rebounding and blocking.

Lucy O’Neal set school records as a Lady Dolphins star. Photo by Brian Carter

An honor roll student, she enrolled in East Carolina University with the intent of getting a Bachelor of Science degree in nursing (BSN). Her interest in nursing derives from a strong desire to help people and, importantly, from her senior project at the health center that included shadowing the nurses.

“Community health has always been an interest to me,” she said. “It’s very different than hospital or bedside nursing. It’s more of like a holistic approach because you get to provide all of the primary care.”

Lucy O’Neal becomes a registered nurse. Photo by Tina Robinson

Unlike many large public schools, Ocracoke does not have a school nurse.

“All I knew back then, was if we were sick, we walked over to the health clinic,” she said. Fortunately, it is adjacent to the school campus.

The senior project gave her an insight in how small communities handle the challenges of providing much-needed health services.

Becoming an RN has never been easy. The East Carolina University School of Nursing is a rigorous, competitive, four-year program, with the first two years requiring courses in chemistry, organic and biochemistry, human anatomy, psychology and sociology, among others.

It is only after those successfully completed courses that students can apply to be accepted into the BSN program. Only 130 students are chosen each year and her class finished with 118 graduates.  

The R.N. program requires various of clinical experiences and courses include Nursing Care of Families During the Childbearing Phase, Health of the Older Adult, Nursing Care of Children and Pharmacotherapeutics.

Even after graduating, it is not over.

The grads must take and pass the “dreaded” National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX) to receive their nursing license.
Adding to the stress of this normally six-hour exam, it required taking it at the test center with a mask and remaining socially distant.

“It was literally the hardest test I’ve ever taken,” O’Neal said. “After I finished, I sat in my car and cried for over an hour in the parking lot because I did not think I passed.”

Forty-eight hours later, she got the notice.

“And I did pass.” 

In addition to her clinical degree, O’Neal has a minor in psychology that can provide valuable insights to her patients’ emotions.  

“One of the first things they taught us was that for a nurse, empathy is one of the main characteristics that you have to have,” she said. “And it’s not feeling sorry for someone, but it’s like putting yourself in their shoes, to understand what they’re going through.”

Students expecting to graduate last spring suddenly had to confront the repercussions of the corona virus epidemic that caused major disruptions including shutting down college campuses. Schools were forced to come up with creative alternatives to normal classroom and testing settings.

“When the pandemic hit around March, our classes were changed to online and made modifications to our program,” she said. “Nursing school classes converted to online are not as great as in-person, obviously, especially our clinicals.”

But during this time, she was nevertheless able to gain some additional clinical experience by working part-time at the Ocracoke Health Center as a medical assistant.

As frustrating as it has been and continues to be for students and faculty throughout the country, one can see how those in the nursing program have gained more than a text book understanding of what can happen to a nation and the world suddenly struck by a once in a 100 years pandemic.

Even her graduation took place with little pomp and circumstance.

“It was a virtual graduation and took place when I was actually on the ferry coming home,” she said.

Homecoming for O’Neal included more than her dream job. Her mother, Tina Robinson, developed some health problems foe which O’Neal can help.

In addition, Hurricane Dorian destroyed their house which was demolished last December and is being rebuilt.

Her father, Ikey D. O’Neal, also lives on the island.

As a new nurse, O’Neal hit the ground running when she began working at the busy health center in July.

“I love it,” O’Neal said, between visits from patients, her eyes smiling above her face covering.

Lucy O’Neal outside the Ocracoke Health Center. Photo: P. Vankevich
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  1. Congratulations, Lucy, for getting your nursing degree, which is difficult under “normal” times let alone our current environment. Ocracoke is lucky to have you! Good luck!

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