At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, a lot changed at Roswell Park. We made masking mandatory for everyone, restricted patient visitation and deployed point-of-entry screeners to monitor the health of people entering the hospital.
One thing that never changed, despite the unprecedented circumstances, was the level of care coming from the Roswell Park nursing staff.
“COVID changed a lot of things at the hospital,” says Karen Schmidt, AAS, RN, OCN. “It was tough not to do the little things to console our patients. We couldn’t give a comforting touch or hug; our whole bedside manner had to change.”
The staff also faced a sense of fear when interacting with patients and worried what the virus meant for cancer patients.
“It was difficult because you had to treat everyone like they could potentially be sick. You can’t let your guard down for a moment, especially when you work with immunocompromised patients. I was afraid if I had been exposed, I could be passing this on to our patients.”
Schmidt has been a nurse at Roswell Park for 11 years. During that time, she has worked as part of the Clinical Research Center, which carries out research studies and clinical trials. She enjoys being on the cutting edge of cancer care.
“The most exciting thing about working on clinical research is over my time on the unit, I have seen treatments that were once part of clinical trials become the new standard of care,” Schmidt says.
After eight years of nursing, Kristopher Kavanagh, MS, RN, CNOR, began working at Roswell Park in April 2020, right at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. As an operating room nurse, he was used to wearing masks and constant hand-sanitization, but one thing did stand out about the care at Roswell Park. “At other hospitals, you treat an ailment. At Roswell Park, you’re treating a person,” he says. “When I think about my role, I am improving outcomes, bettering people’s lives and giving them more life to spend with their loved ones.
“I feel very confident with our COVID protocols. Everything we do is to protect the patients. We all have a heightened awareness about how our actions could affect others.”
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Lending a hand
Once the COVID vaccines arrived, it became clear it would take a small army of volunteers to get them into the arms of eligible recipients. Kavanagh jumped at the chance to help vaccinate his fellow healthcare workers, and now, as vaccine supply increases, to more patients and community members.
“They asked for volunteers, and I have free time in the morning, because my shift doesn’t start until 1 p.m. So now my day usually starts at 7 a.m.,” he says. “Whenever I can give time, I am going to help. It makes for a long day, but it’s worth it.”
Kavanagh usually works in the vaccine clinic from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m., then starts his usual shift, from 1 to 11 p.m., in the OR.
For Karen Schmidt, it was a matter of good timing and luck that she landed on the front lines of administering the vaccine.
“I was out with a foot injury and I couldn’t perform my regular duties with my walking boot. When I came in to get my vaccine, I noticed all nurses administering vaccines were sitting down,” she says. “I just thought, ‘I can do this!’ So, I asked nursing management and was so excited when I was told it would be OK. My first day was Christmas Eve, and I felt like I was the one giving out all the presents!”
It’s that hope, relief and chance for others to see loved ones again that keeps both nurses motivated.
“Giving patients hope is what I am all about. It’s my favorite part about being a nurse,” Schmidt says. Allowing patients to reconnect with loved ones they haven’t seen during the pandemic is another favorite part.
Anyone who has received the vaccine should continue to wear a mask, wash hands often and maintain a safe distance while reconnecting with loved ones.
“I have vaccinated people in their 80s and 90s who were moved to tears because they soon will feel comfortable enough to visit with their grandchildren,” Schmidt says.
Kavanagh agrees. “I’m so happy that we are starting to put an end to this, and ongoing vaccination will allow people to spend time with those who matter most.”
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