Westminster High graduate made mid-career change, now a traveling nurse helping COVID-19 patients
By Chuck Gordon
Carroll County Times|
May 11, 2020 at 5:30 AM
No one has to tell you that a lot of things are different these days. For nurses, the differences can be more than a little unsettling.
Take N-95 masks, for example. They used to be thrown away after every use, to reduce the risk of spreading infection. Now, although nurses and other healthcare providers are confronting a highly contagious disease in the novel coronavirus, they are being forced to reuse those masks, since personal protective equipment (PPE) is a precious commodity these days.
“Honestly, if anyone in management saw you reusing the same mask for multiple patients, that would be a pretty big disciplinary action in the past,” says Tiffany Sochurek, a 2003 Westminster High School alum and a 2007 graduate of Wingate University in North Carolina. “Now we’re just using the same mask, wearing the same eye gear, for multiple patients.”
Sochurek, a communications major at Wingate, realized after graduation that nursing was her calling. She went back to get a nursing degree a few years ago, and soon she’ll take a staff position in Lexington, Kentucky, where she lives.
But for now she’s a traveling nurse, working with COVID-19 patients, and others, at a large hospital in Augusta, Georgia, on a short-term contract. There, she’s seen firsthand how the coronavirus crisis has altered the healthcare system. On the one hand, there have been layoffs in many facilities nationwide, as elective surgeries are canceled and people stay home rather than go see a doctor and risk contracting the virus. That has led to a lot less revenue coming in for healthcare providers.
On the other hand, you have healthcare workers, like Sochurek, who are getting used to a complicated new normal. For nurses, that might mean that something seemingly trivial — such as taking a few more minutes to put on all the required PPE — can actually have a profound effect on patient care.
“If something critical is happening with a patient in isolation, and you have to take that extra three to five minutes to get ready and go into the room, that’s three to five minutes of critical time that the patient might become very unstable,” Sochurek says.
The extra PPE can wear nurses down. It’s harder to breathe with the extra masks on, and for Sochurek that can lead to weird sensations by the end of one of her 12-hour shifts. “Mostly your skin afterwards kind of feels like you’ve been wearing a Band-aid over it the whole day,” she says.
Once, when helping to swap out a COVID-19 patient’s breathing tube, Sochurek had to wear a PAPR (powered-air purifying respirator) suit, to filter out potentially harmful aerosol particles.
“While they’re the gold standard for safety, they also have a fan that’s going constantly in there to filter the air,” Sochurek says, “so you really can’t hear anything, which makes it kind of difficult to actually do the procedure you need to do.”
Communication problems abound for nurses in the age of coronavirus. Because of the time it takes to put the extra PPE, not to mention the need to preserve it, nurses need to take care of as much as possible each time they’re attending to a patient, and leaving the room for a second isn’t an option. If they need something, they can’t just step outside, remove their mask and yell down the hall.
But nurses are resourceful, and in the COVID-19 unit, they’ve developed a system that works.
“I had to change something that I didn’t know I had to change on one piece of equipment,” Sochurek says. “And so what we’ve been doing is you go up to the window, it’s like knocking on the door hoping that someone pays attention to you. They go get it and then kind of open the door a little bit and hand it through carefully so no one touches hands. It’s kind of like a little underground railroad as far as needing to get things sometimes. It’s like a big game of telephone.”
It’s at times like these that Sochurek is grateful that she majored in communications at Wingate, rather than going elsewhere to get a jump on her nursing career. She says her voice and diction and interpersonal communication classes are especially helpful.
“I use those skills that I learned from class every day, because some of my patients can’t talk or some of my coworkers are used to communicating only in medical jargon,” she says. “You kind of have to learn how to roll with the punches, and having a strong communication background really helps either get your point across or see what your patient’s trying to say.”
Having grown up in Maryland, Sochurek didn’t have Wingate on her radar in high school. But after getting a call from Kirk Sanocki, Wingate’s director of aquatics and head swim coach, who had coached Sochurek’s club swim team when she was younger, she decided to come for a visit. In August.
“It was ridiculously warm, and I was like, ’I do not like this,’” she says. “However, I went back for an accepted-students day and met the team and absolutely fell in love with the community that Wingate really is known for.”
Sochurek went on to become a three-time All-American, one of the first crop of All-Americans produced by the program, which is now a national power.
“Tiffany was one of the first people I thought of when attempting to build a recruiting effort for Wingate,” Sanocki says. “Her drive, passion and energy have always been off the charts. She has also always been a very kind, considerate and caring person as well. I cannot say that I knew she would end up doing what she is doing, but I can say it doesn’t surprise me in the least that she is using all those attributes, because that’s just who she is.”
After working in the restaurant industry for a few years, Sochurek wanted to find something more stable. Having been in the working world for a while, she finally improved her self-confidence enough to give nursing a go. She ultimately got a bachelor of science degree in nursing from the University of Alabama. Next month, she’ll start a two-year master’s program to become a nurse practitioner with Registered Nurse First Assistant certification.
“At Wingate I did not step a foot in the science building, just because I didn’t think I could do it,” Sochurek says. “You know, their science programs are so rigorous. I didn’t think I was smart enough, to be quite honest.”
She has proven she is, and perhaps more important she’s a carer at heart. Working primarily in neurocritical care, Sochurek says that seeing patients who’ve had massive strokes come walking into her unit after months of rehabilitation is “the best feeling you can have.”
It pains her to see patients battling COVID-19 alone. It’s tough, because with the coronavirus, patients are wiped out.
“They’re just more exhausted than I’ve seen any other patients,” Sochurek says. “They just are so weak and so tired.”
On top of that, Sochurek and her colleagues are often the patients’ only support system, since visits from family members are extremely limited.
“They’re very scared,” she says. “I do have a hard time seeing when patients aren’t doing very well. But you know, I’ve been doing this awhile, and sometimes you just have to go about your day and do your job to make sure that they get better.”