Carlow alumni on front lines of pandemic

By Drew Wilson -

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PITTSBURGH - The COVID-19 pandemic has created a lot of fear and uncertainty, which has led to many people staying home and staying safe. There’s a segment of the Carlow community, however, who have continued to go to work, providing care for the sickest, and putting themselves on the front lines of a battle against the virus.

Nurses like Jessi Showalter, a 2018 Carlow graduate who volunteered to work in the critical care unit at Allegheny Health Network’s (AHN) Western Pennsylvania Hospital in Bloomfield, so that some of her colleagues with small children or elderly parents wouldn’t have to risk taking the virus home to their loved ones.

“The entire critical care unit at West Penn have volunteered to work there,” said Showalter, who added that they are working 12-hour shifts. “I do have fears, especially when you stop to think of the magnitude of the situation and how serious dealing with this new virus is. I practice the necessary precautions and prepare to keep myself safe.”

Treating patients and protecting staff are the paramount goals at every hospital right now.

“As a manager, the hardest thing to manage is emotions, said Jeffrey Bomba, patient care manager in the Intensive Care Unit at AHN-Jefferson, and a student in the Doctorate of Nursing Practice (DNP) program at Carlow. “There are a lot of thoughts running through your mind. You don’t want to get sick, you don’t want to bring this home to your family, but you also have a job to do.”

Bomba said that these equally important goals have led to some out-of-the-box thinking.

“This has been a time of innovation and creativity,” he said. In the critical care unit at Jefferson, rather than keeping the various monitors, ventilators and IV stations next to the patients’ beds, they have extended the tubing and cords so they can set up the various machinery outside the patient rooms.

He noted that this has had multiple benefits.

“The nurses don’t have to put on protective equipment to enter a patient’s room for something routine like recording vital signs, or changing an IV bag; it saves use of the protective gear for when it is truly needed, and the alarms on the equipment can be heard easier than when the machines are at bedside.

“We’re working hard and learning more about this virus every day,” Bomba said. “We’ve learned a lot in the last few weeks about how to treat it.”

It’s not just nurses who are on the front lines.

“The respiratory care therapists are right there with us providing care,” Showalter said. “They are amazing.”

Elizabeth Stadelman, a 2019 graduate of the Respiratory Care program at Carlow, is working as a respiratory care therapist at UPMC Children’s Hospital, Pittsburgh.

“Children can catch it and could also be carriers,” she said. “This situation is a lot more serious than just saying that in two weeks everything will be fine. We need to keep social distancing and staying safe.”

One of the previous commodities mentioned during this crisis is the shortage of ventilators. Stadelman says that just having the machines is not enough.

“What we’re also lacking is people who understand how to operate the machines,” she said. “Patients can be hooked up to the machine, but it can’t operate with just generic settings. A lot more comes into play, and we need people who have the know-how to use them.”

Of course, like many battles, there isn’t just one front line. There are always people behind the scenes who are needed to ensure that things flow as smoothly as possible, even during a pandemic.

Hannah Kaminski, a 2018 graduate from the health care management program at Carlow, is a systems analyst for UPMC. She has had her role change greatly since the pandemic began.

“In my job, I was involved in a lot of meetings about automation and process improvement, but since the pandemic began, I’ve gained a plethora of new projects,” she said. “I’m involved with enhancing communication between the front-line caregivers and the behind-the-scenes workers, which can include medical records, the lab or administration.”

In addition, she has reached out to UPMC’s Ireland facility to assist them in improving their telemedicine capabilities. Sadly, online phishing scams have been attempted in greater numbers since COVID-19, so cybersecurity has become a priority for everyone in her department.

Through it all, she says Carlow provided her with “both the soft skills and the technical aspects that I need to succeed in my career.” Working in health care, even in a non-caregiving role, has helped her appreciate both sides of the care process. Her grandmother was diagnosed with Stage IV breast cancer and is receiving treatment at a UPMC facility. “She was afraid to go for treatment because of COVID-19, but UPMC has done a great job of easing her fears,” she says.

Of course, fear and anxiety have increased greatly in all levels of society during this pandemic. No one knows that better than someone who works in the mental health field.

Dr. Mary Ann Linz Ager is a psychiatrist who graduated from Carlow in 1970 with a double major in biology and chemistry. She worked for two years in a medical laboratory for the National Institutes of Health while attending graduate school, prior to medial school. In that lab, she worked for Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who has become well known for the daily press briefings from the White House.

“From the first days that I heard about COVID-19, I was fascinated by it because of my research background,” she said. “At the beginning of March, I knew it was going to change the way the world worked, and that personally I was going to have to stop seeing patients face-to-face.”

When meeting with a patient face-to-face, there are nonverbal cues that can be as revealing as the words they use to describe their feelings or a situation that they’ve experienced, she said.

“I’m spending more time online than ever before … seeing patients, meeting with colleagues,” Ager said, adding that in some ways, it has been more exhausting than seeing patients in person because she can’t pick up on the nonverbal cues as easily. She admits that there have been advantages, too.

“Certain patients are better at home. Being in familiar surroundings can reduce the anxiety for some patients,” she said, adding that she has met their pets, and they have gotten to hear her dog barking in the background. “For all of us, this is going to be an experience that we can use. It’s a great opportunity to find out what works best for each individual.”

In the meantime, what works best for battling COVID-19 is simple.

“Everyone has lost routine, so it’s important each day to get up, get a shower, get dressed and schedule your day as best you can,” Ager said.

On the matter of mitigating the spread of the virus, Bomba is clear in his sentiment.

“I think everyone needs to take time to stay home,” he said. “Viruses don’t move. People move the virus. We are the vehicle.”

Through this whole experience, Bomba says that he has been most touched by the public’s reaction to caregivers.

“As a nurse, the support from the community and leadership has been incredible. These are scary times, but they are also the proudest moments of my life. There were people holding signs in the parking lot saying, ‘Thank you.’ It has been touching. Things like that may keep you going and help you get through the next 12 hours.”

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