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Serving on the Front Lines of COVID-19

Airman First Class (A1C) Annah Chriske ’23 is conducting COVID-19 testing at long-term care facilities as part of a National Guard team, placing her at one of the hotspots of the pandemic in Minnesota. But she’s happy to be serving her community, and she’s gaining valuable experience for her future.

By Jason Schoonover ’09, content specialist

September 04, 2020 | 12:30 p.m.

Annah Chriske ’23

Airman First Class (A1C) Annah Chriske ’23 performs a COVID-19 test on a fellow member of the 133rd Medical Group of the Minnesota Air National Guard. As the unit has performed tests regularly this spring and summer at long-term care facilities around the state, they test each other weekly.

When Airman First Class (A1C) Annah Chriske ’23 decided to move from Wisconsin to Minnesota to attend Bethel University, she joined the Minnesota Air National Guard to help pay for college and to serve and get to know her community. As she finished her first year at Bethel, Chriske was called on to serve the community during an unprecedented challenge.

In mid-May, Chriske was deployed as part of the 133rd Medical Group of the Minnesota Air National Guard to help with the state’s COVID-19 response. Since then, the group has conducted COVID-19 testing predominantly at long-term care facilities, putting Chriske and her team at the heart of the state’s response. And Chriske is happy to be serving. “I think this is what I was meant to do—this is why I joined,” she says.

Chriske, a Wisconsin native, joined the Minnesota Air National Guard in 2018 shortly after she decided to attend Bethel, which she first learned about through a Christian camp. Then she learned about using the military to help pay for her schooling while serving her community. “I feel like serving is one of my purposes in life, and this has been a really great way to do that,” she says. Bethel’s Executive Director of Military and Veteran Services (MVS) John Morris noted that Chriske’s experience is common for Bethel undergraduate students who serve in the Guard. They decide they want to come to Bethel and view service as a way to fund it.

When Gov. Tim Walz called in the National Guard to help administer COVID-19 testing in Minnesota, it served as Chriske’s first experience in active duty. Like other Bethel students, she had returned home to finish the semester in a virtual instruction learning environment, so she returned to Minnesota to receive additional training on COVID-19 testing and to begin the work. “It was really cool how we all came together so quickly,” she says. “We all just assembled so we can do our job.” While this occurred during finals at Bethel, Chriske says her professors worked with her to finish her class requirements, and she finished the semester with strong grades.
Annah Chriske ’23

Airman First Class (A1C) Annah Chriske ’23 joined the National Guard to help pay for college, but her work on the 133rd Medical Group is preparing her for the future. It’s giving her valuable experience as she hopes to one day be a doctor or physician assistant.

Chriske and the 133rd Medical Group quickly started testing. The work is important, as long-term care facilities remain a critical hotspot during the pandemic. By June, the Minnesota Department of Health found that long-term care residents accounted for half of COVID-19-related deaths in Minnesota, and the strain of coronavirus is known to adversely affect older and vulnerable adults. The unit typically conducts tests at a site once a week for three weeks to track the spread and number of new cases. If the number of cases remains steady or declines, they move on. Chriske says her unit can work fast, conducting about 100 tests an hour. As of June 25, the 133rd Medical Group had conducted 38,000 tests at 107 long-term care facilities in Minnesota. Chriske says they averaged about 900 swabs a day, and she estimates she’s administered from 25 to as many as 50 tests a day.

Chriske enjoys the chance to connect with residents and staff at nursing homes while administering the testing. Most were pleased to have the Guard doing the work, and Chriske says she’s been able to dispel some misconceptions about the National Guard by sharing her own story. She says they’ve been able to show that Guard soldiers are “just regular civilians,” Chriske says. “I go to school. I lead a pretty normal life besides drills.”

Early on, Chriske felt nervous about working in nursing homes where she knew there were COVID-19 cases, but her concerns have eased. She and her fellow Guard troops wear extensive personal protective equipment—booties, a gown, N-95 masks, face shields, and gloves. The unit is also tested for the virus weekly.

Serving in the medical group is also preparing Chriske for her future as a biology major at Bethel on a pre-med track. “The amount of medical experience I’ve gotten through the Guard has been crazy,” she says. “I wouldn’t be able to get this kind of medical experience anywhere else.” Chriske hopes to one day work as a physician assistant or doctor. Many of her superiors in the Guard are doctors who were once in Chriske’s position, and they have been able to give advice and guidance.

She’s also been able to bond with her Guard teammates, noting they’re all in this together away from friends and family. Similarly, Chriske found a community at Bethel through the Student Veterans of America (SVA) chapter. The club and efforts through Bethel’s Office of Military and Veterans Services helped her meet people with similar experiences, and it’s introduced her to some of her best friends. Morris and the MVS office have also helped her navigate and utilize her military benefits—and to transfer her military credits. He commended Chriske for her great interpersonal relationship skills, energy, follow-through, and attention to detail. “She’s going to be a really good leader,” he says.

Chriske is pleased to have a supportive community at Bethel where she can grow in her faith. She compares her current mission with the Guard to Bethel’s mission as Christians to shine a light and serve. She’s happy to be supporting the community. “I’m proud to say I’m doing it,” she says of her work. While she and the unit are serving during an unprecedented and historic time, she admits it doesn’t feel that way. “It just feels like we’re doing our job,” she says, though she wonders if she’ll view the work differently in the future.

After graduation, Chriske plans to continue her schooling to become a physician assistant or a doctor. “I want to be able to serve people in a different way, and I really love science and medicine and how the human body works,” she says. She’s interested in trauma care, surgery, and emergency medicine, and she’s already received some experience through her military training. She also hopes to find ways to serve the underprivileged or to do mission work.

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