(This Q&A is part of a story package that also highlights how Ohio Northern Universy's Nursing Program has adapted during the pandemic.)
With the COVID-19 pandemic altering the health care landscape in numerous ways, recent nursing graduates have been at the first responder forefront. What have their experiences been like thus far? Two 2021 Ohio Northern University graduates, who are also engaged to be married, offered their thoughts on becoming nurses during these challenging times.
James Fisher, BSN '21, from Castalia, Ohio, is working at the Cleveland Clinic’s medical ICU at Fairview Hospital. Christina Stalla, BSN '21, from North Ridgeville, Ohio, is working at the Cleveland Clinic Main Campus on a medical/surgical telemetry unit caring for patients with a wide variety of diagnoses.
Here’s what they said.
Why did you decide to become a nurse?
Christina: My passion for science and my desire to work with people. I always wanted to be that person who could help when a person is sick and now I get to do that for a living while making meaningful connections with patients and learning so much about people.
James: My mother was still in nursing school when I was young and I think that rubbed off some! But I do love science and the pathophysiology of the human body, so this was a great place to start.
While studying nursing at ONU, did COVID-19 have an emotional impact on your career pursuit?
Christina: COVID definitely changed my perspective on the nursing profession. Not only did we have to switch to online learning and leave the campus for half a semester, but we also had to make a choice for the sake of our own health and our family’s health if we wanted to continue to pursue this profession in spite of a new and dangerous virus. It was a scary choice to make, but despite everything, when we were sent home I immediately started looking for jobs as a PCNA (nurses' aide) so that I could continue to get patient experience while studying online.
Little did I know when I got the job that my new unit would also staff the COVID unit at the beginning of the pandemic when everyone knew very little about what protections health care workers should be taking while caring for these patients. Guidelines changed almost daily and it definitely was a challenge for myself and my family for me to stay in this field before a vaccine even existed.
However, I do think that I found purpose in using all of my knowledge and having the ability to care for these people who were also scared and needed people to care for them and help them through this challenging time. So, in that way, my passion for nursing grew. I am also grateful that ONU was able to have in-person classes for my senior year and that I was able to continue my in-person clinical experiences, because nursing students at other larger schools were not quite as fortunate.
James: The virus actually made me prouder to be pursuing a nursing degree/ I was as I was waiting patiently to finish school so I could join my fellow medical staff in the fight.
What has your first year as a nurse been like?
Christina: My first year has been nothing short of an adventure, to say the least. When started in June of 2021, my unit had no COVID patients. However, as numbers rose in the fall and around the holidays, we slowly became a full COVID unit from November to February. So, not only did I have to learn to be a nurse with our typical patient population, I now had to learn how to care for these COVID patients as a nurse in the face of a new wave of the pandemic while patients declined quickly. This was a side of nursing that I truly hadn't seen before and I felt as though we were back to the start and trying to figure out how to help these patients while I was still trying to learn how to be a good nurse.
This also created challenges with nurses leaving the unit and not getting as many new hires because they did not want to start on a COVID unit. For this reason, I am already charge nurse on my unit frequently and have even precepted a new nurse. I have gained a lot of knowledge from these experiences and I have had to learn fast, and though it is stressful, I have learned a lot in my first year.
James: It's been a true grind but a blessing. Right out of graduation, there was no break from learning. I studied constantly to be successful on the NCLEX and then it was off to studying my hospital's policies and expectations in a 12-hour shift.
Has anything caught you off guard or taken you by surprise?
Christina: I am surprised by things every day. One of the things that surprised me the most in my first year was learning how different each hospital system is and how things work, which is not something that is taught in school. Communicating with providers, getting supplies and coordinating patient care has all been a learning curve for me. I also was surprised by how quickly a patient's health can decline and now realize just how important monitoring and assessing patients truly is.
James: Previously, I had stated that the virus had made me want to finish school and join the fight, but I wasn't prepared for how sick these COVID patients were. Everything the public saw from the media covering this virus was no exaggeration. It was brutal. These patients were sick. At one point, our unit was completely full with patients on ventilators. We couldn't bring in any more patients due to the fact that those occupying the rooms obviously couldn't go anywhere else! I was fresh out of orientation and seeing this level of acuity was a culture shock.
What are some work-related interactions that have had the greatest impact on you, that you’ll likely remember forever?
Christina: I am grateful for the support of the other nurses on my unit who are always willing to help answer questions, lend a hand or just give a second opinion.
James: Often on a unit like the ICU, patients will not make a recovery, leaving the families to decisions you never want to have to make for a loved one. But being that emotional support person for them has had a huge impact on the care I provide. You realize that you never are just caring for one person, you are caring for the whole family.
What have been some of your greatest challenges and some of your best/most gratifying moments?
Christina: The answer to both parts of this question is being charge nurse on my unit and being trusted to be a reliable resource for new(er) nurses has definitely been my biggest challenge but most gratifying moment. It is not easy to take on this role while still learning and caring for my own set of patients, but because of this opportunity I have learned a lot and I have learned how much I enjoy teaching and learning new things.
James: Definitely learning how to care for COVID patients right out of orientation with multi organ failure and systemic illnesses. Some of my most gratifying moments would have to be the amount of certifications that I've taken upon myself to receive. Since starting in June of 2021 I have become: ACLS certified, NIHSS stroke certified, ultrasound guided IV certified, skin care resource nurse certified, and soon-to-be CRRT certified, which is a form of dialysis for the very ill.
What role has the pandemic played in your work?
Christina: To sum it up, the pandemic has definitely added extra challenges to my social life and my work life. I have had to do my own research, communicate with doctors and educate patients who have heard so many different sides regarding scientific evidence and who do not always want to listen to healthcare professionals, which was something I hadn't quite dealt with before. I also had to do everything I could to protect my health so that I, in turn, could protect my family's health, which often meant not seeing them as often so that I did not have to risk them catching this virus.
James: It (pandemic) has made the unit a team but has also caused staffing shortages and heavier assignments, which could lead to improper care and burnout.
What sorts of career goals do you hope to achieve?
Christina: I hope to someday work with pediatric patients as well as eventually go back for my master’s degree in education or leadership so that I can become a manager or an educator.
James: In August, I plan on attending Youngstown State University’s Acute Care Nurse Practitioner Program. Critical care has been an absolute blast and I would love to one day soon take that next step to call my own shots with being a provider.
Would you recommend that others go into the profession? If so, what should they do to best prepare?
Christina: People should do their own research on the nursing profession before starting, so that they truly know the risks and benefits that they are getting into. It is a lot of pressure, stress and liability. However, I truly could not picture myself doing anything else and I think that people going into this profession should always continue to educate themselves and never forget what made them want to be a nurse in the first place, because that can sometimes get lost with all of the pressure.
James: This profession is not for everyone. You have to enjoy social interaction and know how to critically think. To best prepare, actively engage in what you are learning in nursing school. Realize that you aren't ever going to know it all but be passionate about trying to learn it all!