Working on the Frontlines of the COVID-19 Pandemic, Physician Assistant Merritt Hambrick Sees ‘Humanity at Its Best’

Hambrick is on the frontlines of patient care.

Written by Cillea Houghton
Working on the Frontlines of the COVID-19 Pandemic, Physician Assistant Merritt Hambrick Sees ‘Humanity at Its Best’
Merritt Hambrick; Photo credit: Adam Hambrick

Merritt Hambrick remembers where she was the moment she realized the world was about to change. She and her husband, country singer Adam Hambrick, were in an Uber in Los Angeles, California for a Grammy Awards-related event where Adam was performing in January 2020 when an NPR news report came through the radio informing them that the first cases of COVID-19 had been detected in the U.S. But at the time, the risk for transmission was relatively low. “It was this time of heightened fun and excitement and looking back, that is the last time I really got to enjoy live music and the best of what country music can be,” Hambrick, a physician assistant working on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic in Nashville, reflects in a phone interview with Sounds Like Nashville.

Though the situation remained relatively quiet for the next month, by March, the clinic where she works was designated a COVID-19 assessment site and soon after, the world was sent into quarantine. “Things changed overnight,” recalls Hambrick, adding that the most pressing fear at the beginning of the pandemic was the potential of running out of personal protective equipment, which did not occur at the facility. On a typical day pre-pandemic, Hambrick and her team were treating patients for common health ailments such as sports-induced injuries, strep throat and lacerations. In the midst of the pandemic, the daily routine now involves evaluating and testing patients for COVID-19 and determining whether or not a patient needs to be hospitalized or can recover at home. Hambrick heads into battle wearing what she refers to as a “new wardrobe” consisting of a face shield, mask, gown and gloves, attire that’s become “second nature” when preparing for her shift.

While daily activity inside the hospital has changed significantly, Hambrick’s life outside the hospital walls has also been impacted. Whether having to reply “yes” each time the hostess at a restaurant inquires if she’s been in contact with someone who’s tested positive for the virus, or continuously wiping down high-touch surfaces in her home out of protection for her husband and their two young daughters Gracie, 3, and one-year-old Heidi, the reality of this virus is constantly at the forefront of the healthcare worker’s mind. “All the potential harmful side effects, which can be very vast, it is scary to put yourself in the line of direct exposure. There’s that constant in the back of your mind, ‘is this going to be the day, is this going to be the exposure that is going to get me sick?’” she explains. “In the beginning, I was so worried about bringing any illness home to the girls or Adam, and that still is something that I carry with me, or family members who are older or aren’t in as good of health. It was the constant thought in my head and now I still carry it with me every day. But fortunately, I think as time goes on, we just adapt and learn. We’ve all had to learn how to go on with our lives in the midst of all this and make the best of it that we can.”

Hambrick brings the selflessness of her work home with her, making the safety of her husband and children the utmost priority. Part of her safety routine includes stripping off every article of clothing she wore at the clinic and immediately putting them in the washing machine to be disinfected before promptly heading into the shower to decontaminate herself. This extensive process often means that she misses her children’s bedtime routine that provides much-needed respite after an exhausting shift. “After a really long day, I would love to cuddle with my girls. There’s been times after a long day, getting to do bedtime would be such a treat, but I know it’s in everyone’s best interest. It’s just part of the job, and it’s okay. I’m glad to be able to serve in that way,” Hambrick expresses. “I truly think everybody has a role and this has all impacted people in such unique ways; remembering that everyone’s pain is very individual and that what one person experiences, somebody else may experience it completely differently,” she continues. “I think that division hurts so much. I think as much as we can encourage people and ask the right questions, each individual say, ‘what can I do to help in the situation?’ ‘How can I be a change?’ ‘How can I help the country heal’ or ‘how can I help my family heal?’ ‘How can I help my neighborhood heal?’”

In addition to her family, Hambrick has also found comfort in music. Inspired by the heroic nature of his wife’s work, Adam released “Between Me and the End of the World” in May 2020 that serves as a token of gratitude to his wife and the many other frontline workers. Written during quarantine, the compelling song sees Adam tributing his wife as the fearless protector that saves him from the darkness and destruction in the world. “Till the tide starts turning back our way/You give us hope even/ Feels like the sky might fall this time/ And all the bad news hits too close to home/ And the darkness is drowning the light/ I know/ Just who I got fighting on my side,” he sings calmly. “It was really special. I love to say that the song is really for everyone who’s stood in harm’s way, especially through the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s for everyone who really has served during this time,” Hambrick says of her reaction to the song, citing live music as the “heartbeat of Nashville.” “I think the message of the song, and especially as it plays towards the end, is a message of hope. I think it’s easy for people to lose hope, so I think that comes from leaning on each other, and I think the country music industry has always been a leader in that and lifting people’s spirits,” she observes. “I hope people can continue to hang on and write great songs that can lift people up, give them hope, give them encouragement to keep hanging on. I honestly think we’re going to get there if we can just continue to hang on and look for the glimmers of hope that are around us in each day.”

For Hambrick, those glimmers of hope appear in the form of “little joys” such as watching her husband and their neighbor build a swing set for daughter Gracie, to witnessing the outpouring of community support, exemplified by the strangers who approach her at the grocery store when they see her wearing scrubs to thank her for her service. It’s these encouraging moments that symbolize hope and allow Hambrick to truly feel the heart of the nation that she and her colleagues’ across the country dedicate their lives to. “I think I’ll remember the opportunity to serve and what a unique time in our lives this all was. We are resilient people and hope wins and love wins and light wins,” Hambrick proclaims of what she’s learned through this experience. “It’s a beautiful thing to see humanity at its best.”