Karen M. Richard, M.S.N. ’18, Teaches Student Nurses How to Cope With Unexpected Crises

June 2, 2020
By: Kristen O'Reilly

Karen M. Richard, M.S.N. ’18, is registered nurse on the Medical-Surgical Unit (designated COVID-19 unit) for HealthAlliance Hospital in Leominster, where she has worked for almost 10 years. She also is an adjunct faculty member, teaching sophomore nursing students at Worcester State.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected your daily life?

Like everyone else, it’s difficult to find any normalcy. I’m trying to homeschool my third-grade daughter and make the situation fun, but at times I struggle with it. Thankfully, now that the weather is nicer, we can hike more and get out of the house. I want to teach my daughter to be safe but not scared.

What is the most challenging part of your job?

It’s hard to pick just one thing that is the most challenging part of being a nurse during a pandemic. I used to take some measure of comfort going to work and knowing what to expect to a certain degree. Now going to work, in and of itself, is difficult. So many of my fellow nurses and I now experience sleeplessness and anxiety before going to work, wondering what we’re walking into. Policies and procedures are changing on sometimes an hourly basis. There is no policy to guide us sometimes, because these circumstances didn’t exist before now.

Because we are to limit our time with the COVID-19-positive and rule-out COVID-19 patients, it is necessary to consolidate care as much as possible. Once you are prepared in full PPE (personal protective equipment), you try to be as efficient with your assessment and care as you can while still making sure to give your patient your full attention.

It is also difficult to have a very sick or dying patient and the family is unable to visit or be with them as they pass. We give the families as much information as we can and try our best to keep their family member comfortable, but it is heartbreaking on so many levels.

What is the best part of your job?

I enjoy taking care of my patients and that will always be incredibly rewarding to me. I feel that I did not choose the nursing profession; it chose me. And as such, I cannot stand by when a patient or co-worker is struggling. I have to help. I see and learn something new almost every day I work and that makes this job constantly fascinating.

I have been particularly moved by the kindness and bravery my co-workers have shown. It is a difficult thing to explain this experience to someone who is not a nurse and not taking care of COVID-19 patients. The team I work with looks out for each other. We take care of each other and support each other.

I’ve watched another nurse hold back tears while telling a patient’s wife on the phone that her husband of over 60 years has passed away and his wife could not be by his side. We’ve used our own cell phones so desperate families can connect with their loved ones. We’ve commiserated about homeschooling unhappy children all morning and then coming to work. Humor has helped us get through, as well as treating each other kindness and grace when emotions get the better of us.

 What lessons are your sophomore nursing students learning during this crisis?

When it became apparent in March that nursing school clinical would not be continuing as usual, I let my students know that, while this is certainly not an ideal situation, nursing is all about rolling with the unexpected and staying calm in the face of uncertainty. It is so true that the only constant (even in nursing) is change. Change in equipment, evidence-based practice, co-workers, schedules, medications—you must be able to adapt to change.

Virtual clinicals have had unexpected benefits and stretched us all out of our comfort zone. Every situation has something to teach us, if we approach it with an attitude of wanting to learn and understand. Difficult situations teach you how to be better, how you could handle something differently next time, how to more effectively advocate for your patient.

What would you like to tell others who aren’t in the medical profession about what you are experiencing?

Again, it’s difficult to explain to people who aren’t experiencing what we are going through how we are being affected. We are all traumatized to an extent. Many of us don’t sleep well anymore and are homeschooling our kids before we come to work. It is hard to leave work hoping you have bleached and sanitized everything you can, and praying you do not bring the virus home to your family. Many of us have wondered if we should leave home so as not to expose our families. I’ve wondered what will happen if I become infected and will I be able to work or should I be drawing up a will in case I don’t make it through this.

How do you deal with the stress?

I reach out to my friends and family for support. I enjoy exploring creative outlets with my 9-year-old daughter and bonding over our shared love of art. And, well, ice cream.

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