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USD Student Finds Calling in Health Care After Serving in Local Hospital During COVID-19

Nathan Popp wearing his nursing gear outside with a South Dakota prairie background. Nathan Popp, a medical biology major at USD, works part-time at Avera McKennan Hospital & University Health Center as a patient care technician. He has enjoyed the experience so far and plans to attend medical school in the future.

VERMILLION,S.D. – While this year’s spring break was unique for all students, for Nathan Popp, a rising sophomore majoring in medical biology at the University of South Dakota, starting a part-time position at a hospital provided him with the opportunity to be on the front lines of a global pandemic.

Popp, who graduated from Brandon Valley High School in 2019, works part-time as a patient care technician at Avera McKennan Hospital & University Health Center.

“Our job is to handle integral tasks as we care for and serve patients – to check vitals, check feeding tubes or catheters, help the patients eat, brush their teeth or go for a walk. We’re really there to help with patients’ essential needs as they recover,” Popp said.

The pandemic has accelerated his development and experience in the health care field.

“There’s been a few shifts where I have worked in the COVID-19 unit,” said Popp. “Generally, patient interaction is minimized to physicians and nurses to limit exposure, but there are still tasks to perform.”

Popp also had to balance the new role with the transition to remote learning and keeping up with his studies.

“It’s been a unique experience. I often brought my books and laptop to work to complete my reading and homework during my lunch breaks,” said Popp.

Popp said that one of the most impactful days at the hospital was spending time with a patient who lost a loved one. Unable to have visitors due to the pandemic, Popp spent the day with them ensuring they had both physical and emotional support.

“At Avera, we consider it an honor to serve those who need care. Medicine isn’t just about making people healthy on the outside. It’s also being there for them so they are healthy as a whole. Medicine is taking care of body, mind and spirit – for the patient and their loved ones,” said Popp.

Popp also works part-time at a local pharmacy and said he ultimately hopes to attend medical school one day to become an emergency medicine doctor.

“Working at a hospital is a privilege. It’s been a great way to determine if this is the setting and field I want to be part of,” said Popp. “Two or three months in—I have really enjoyed the experience thus far.”

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Founded in 1862 and the first university in the Dakotas, the University of South Dakota is the only public liberal arts university in the state, with 202 undergraduate and 78 graduate programs in the College of Arts & Sciences, School of Education, School of Law, Sanford School of Medicine, School of Health Sciences, Beacom School of Business and College of Fine Arts. With an enrollment of nearly 10,000 students and more than 400 faculty, USD has a 16:1 student/faculty ratio, and it ranks among the best in academics and affordability. USD’s 18 athletic programs compete at the NCAA Division I level.

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