COVID-19 PROFILE: Dani (Cichon) Stone ’11

#Alumni, #COVID-19 Profiles, #PiratesOnceAlways

Nothing that Dani (Cichon) Stone ‘11 had experienced in her nursing career could have prepared her for what she saw working in the COVID-19 intensive care unit in Chicago this spring. Not even working in the COVID-19 ICU at Saint Thomas Midtown Hospital in Nashville for the previous couple of months. When Stone left for Chicago, the outbreak in Nashville had been mild, although Tennessee’s numbers are now rising. But the hospital where she served in Chicago was in the thick of the pandemic, with beds full and more patients dying than living.

Stone, center, performing with her husband, Nick, right, and Alex Stradal, left, as South For Winter.

“In the three weeks I was there, working in a 16-bed ICU unit, I saw two patients live,” Cichon said. “One of those who lived was a 45-year-old man who came into the hospital walking and talking, and was discharged to a skilled nursing facility with a tracheostomy.”

At the inner city hospital in Chicago, Stone said most of the COVID-19 patients were between the ages of 40 and 60, but even patients in their 20s and 30s with no past medical history were dying from the virus. ICU nurses typically care for one or two patients per shift. While ICU patients are critically ill, Stone said she had never experienced nearly losing both patients during her shift until working in the COVID unit in Chicago.

“I had one of my patients pass away during my shift, and I almost lost the other one too. He died two hours after my shift was over,” she said. “What they were experiencing in Chicago was definitely different from Nashville. Just the sheer numbers were overwhelming, and it had been like that for four months already.”

Now back in Nashville, Stone is watching the number of those infected rise in what is now her home state. She has concerns about the nation’s hospital system’s ability to handle the increasing numbers. Saint Thomas Midtown Hospital currently has 100 nurses and doctors furloughed because they have been exposed to the virus. The loss is taxing a staff already working stressful shifts under difficult circumstances.

“Before I left for Chicago I could almost understand Nashville not taking the precautions against COVID as seriously, since our numbers were low,” Stone said. “But after what I experienced in Chicago, and now that Tennesee’s case numbers are going up, I’m more frustrated with the anti-mask culture. Sometimes I wish people could see what the hospitals see – it can truly be like a war zone.”

While working in the ICU is never not stressful, Stone said working in the ICU now is a different level of stress. That stress is partially brought on by the vast number of critically ill patients being admitted, combined with the dwindling number of healthcare workers – many of whom are either leaving bedside nursing permanently, or are becoming infected themselves. 

“When people talk about the low mortality rate of this virus, they also aren’t taking into account the lasting difficulties that can remain after recovery,” Stone said. “Nurses I know who are in their 20s and recovered more than a month ago are still exhausted. The low mortality numbers also don’t account for the people who are moved to nursing facilities with tracheotomies, or those who require home care afterwards. They don’t include the permanent damage on the lungs that this virus might leave for some. We just don’t yet know how this may affect people long-term.”

This year has certainly not been what Stone expected 2020 to be for her and her husband, Nick. Early this year, she had started working part time at the hospital so she could dedicate more time to South for Winter, the musical trio she started with Nick and cellist Alex Stradal. They had booked a European tour for the summer, were working on a full album set for release later this year, and were looking forward to promoting their music. 

“It’s been weird to be between worlds,” she said. “My musician friends are nervous and frustrated, since their livelihood is on hold as tours have been postponed or canceled. And I understand that, because I feel that too. But as a nurse I understand the need to flatten the curve. So when I’m upset our plans have been canceled, I remind myself that we’re just lucky to be healthy. It helps to have that perspective.”

Stone said that the earliest she could see South for Winter getting back out on the road would be next summer, but she’s not even sure she should expect it then. In the meantime, she stays connected to her family, which includes two doctors, her musician friends, and her St. Mary’s friends, many of whom are also on the COVID-19 frontlines, as a way to manage the stress.

“The St. Mary’s connection continues past high school, definitely. What St. Mary’s has is really incredible,” Stone said. “It’s an extended family. It’s something St. Mary’s is best at.”

Nursing full time was not what Stone had planned for this year, but she will be full time in the COVID ICU for the foreseeable future. With numbers rising, Stone said she hopes that those in the US will practice the precautions that have been recommended–wearing masks, social distancing, and using hand sanitizer–so our country can experience the decline in cases that other countries, such as New Zealand, Italy and South Korea, have seen. 

“I think people need to know that this virus is not affecting just older or immunocompromised people—many younger people are also getting really sick from COVID-19,” she said. “Waiting for immunity to build up paints a grim picture. But other countries who have shut down and followed the precautions, are now back open. It’s possible; we just all have to do our part.”

By Amy G. Pertain
Director of Communications
St. Mary’s High School

COVID-19 PROFILE: Sophia Olán ’99

#Alumni, #COVID-19 Profiles, #UnitedByCommunity, 2019-2020, Alumni

Her role as an emergency department social worker in Denver has put Sophia Olán ‘99 in the think of the COVID-19 pandemic since it began earlier this year. During the course of their normal work, ED social workers encourage patients who are victims to seek follow-up care and provide resources and referrals to help them do that.

During the pandemic, Olán has collected emergency contact information, coordinated video visits, provided emotional support and active listening to family members, and located and placed the homeless in isolated rooms designed for COVID+ treatment.

“It’s not exactly how I planned to spend 2020, but I remain hopeful and faithful of the blessings God has in store for us,” she said.

As other St. Mary’s alumni have attest, the COVID-19 virus has provided challenges for the medical community that it is hard for those outside the community to understand. Olán has seen the devastation brought on by quarantine and social distancing, even for those in the community not been directly affected by the COVID-19 virus. The isolation and lose of routines has taken a toll on the mental health of the Denver community, and resulted in more domestic violence cases.

“What has been tough is witnessing the increase of domestic violence victims, the severity of the new cases of child abuse, the manifestation of anxiety in parties never having experienced mental health issues and the increase in overdosing on drugs and suicide attempts,” she said.

Although her work days are hard, Olán said she wouldn’t change her role for the world.

“I love contributing in a meaningful way, learning from my patients and being inspired by their resiliency,” she said.

By Amy G. Partain
Director of Communications
St. Mary’s High School

COVID-19 Profile: Hannah McReavy ’18

#COVID-19 Profiles, #InspiredByFaith, 2019-2020, Alumni, Service

Working full time at a homeless center in Boulder, Colorado, was not how Hannah McReavy envisioned spending the last months of her sophomore year at college. In February, McReavy, who graduated from St. Mary’s High School in 2018, was at Providence College in Rhode Island; a month later, she was in Boulder, where her parents now live, finishing the semester virtually as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Online classes leaving her with time on her hands, McReavy started looking for ways to help. She had volunteered at the Marian House during her years at St. Mary’s High School, and had done other volunteer work in Boulder, but had not worked extensively with the homeless community. As she sifted through the volunteer opportunities in Boulder, she was drawn to the COVID-19 recovery center for the homeless.

“I’m in the age group that is least at risk and I felt I needed to do something to help,” McReavy said. “When I started, I thought I would just be helping out, instead it’s become a full-time job.”

McReavy is working 40-hours per week at the COVID recovery center, sometimes working the night shift. Patients at the recovery center are referred there by the Boulder shelter system. The site used is a local recreation center, so the accommodations provided are simply cots placed throughout the building as well as makeshift common areas. McReavy said when the patients arrive at the center, they are given a medical checkup, and those who exhibit extreme symptoms are referred to the hospital. But even some of those who are severe enough to be hospitalized, often do not want to be transferred to the hospital, McReavy said, due to the burden of hospital costs. Those who test positive and remain at the center are placed in a room together in an attempt to limit the spread of the virus. The patients receive general medical care, are given pain relievers to help with symptoms, get laundry done, have access to showers, receive regular meals and most importantly have time to rest. 

“There is a stigma to working with the homeless; it’s not as glamorous as other opportunities, but they are the ones who need help the most,” she said. “Taking this opportunity has been one of the riskiest yet best decisions I’ve ever made.”

The work has changed McReavy—both how she thinks about the homeless and what she hopes to do with her future. Meeting people from all walks of life at the center has been eye opening, McReavy said. Since the residents at the center stay for two weeks to a month, the staff is able to fully engage with them, an opportunity that McReavy is thankful for, giving her the chance to form new relationships with people she never imagined she would.

“One of our patients was coming down from heroin and hallucinating throughout the night. I stayed by his bedside for hours, letting him know it was going to be alright,” she said. “That was not something I had never witnessed before, but I learned that people are people and no one should be going through hard times alone.”

This new understanding of the plight of the homeless has changed McReavy’s plans for the future. A psychology major,  minoring in neuroscience, McReavy said she now hopes to work with the homeless community, providing the much needed mental health services to the underserved community. McReavy will continue her studies at the University of Colorado-Boulder this fall working toward that goal.

As she looks to the future, McReavy said it was her past—specifically teachings learned at St. Mary’s High School—that influenced her taking the position at the recovery center. It was in Father Joe Dygert’s junior theology class that McReavy delved into the teaching on how the basic moral test of society is shown in its care of those who are poor and vulnerable. And what she has witnessed at the center has both strengthened and deepened her faith. 

“As a follower of Christ and member of the Catholic church, one of my biggest responsibilities is to help those in need,” she said. “This experience has humanized that aspect of the faith for me. I’ve seen how vulnerable people can be and have come to understand that all those who are vulnerable in our community are still human with the same dignity as everyone else, no matter what label is placed on them.”

The love of the community evidenced in the number of volunteers who have turned out to help at the center has deepened her faith as well. The fact that people want to help and choose to selflessly give shows love and care for others, putting the faith into action. 

“We had this wonderful man with us for two weeks. We called him ‘God Bless Man’ because anytime we helped him, he would say ‘God Bless,” she said. “He was truly grateful for the help he was receiving. Each time he said ‘God Bless’ it reminded me that this is what God wants and what Jesus taught us to do.”

By Amy G. Partain
Director of Communications
St. Mary’s High School

COVID-19 Profile: Katie Whitt ’08

#Alumni, #COVID-19 Profiles, #InspiredByFaith, #PiratesOnceAlways, #UnitedByCommunity, Alumni

Katie (O’Donnell) Whitt ’08 is several years removed from her time spent at St. Mary’s High School. Yet, the words of her junior theology teacher, Michael Dillon, still guide her each day. Whitt said that Dillon challenged the members of her class to be the light in a world filled with darkness and pain. It is a statement that she reflects on, especially during times of uncertainty as she serves as a critical care ICU nurse in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho.

“Mr. Dillon said, ‘The world is full of darkness, pain, and a lot of crap. How can YOU be a light in this dark world? The world is full of darkness: be the light,’” Whitt said. “During these stressful and uncertain times in our country and the world, I try to focus on what I can control and ask myself a few questions each day: What can I do to be a light to others? What can I do to stay positive? How can I best serve my patients, family, and friends today? Reminding myself to focus on what I can control, and leaving the rest in God’s hands, is reassuring for me.”

Whitt’s shifts in the ICU have never been easy. She is trained to care for the “sickest of the sick,” patients she describes as so unstable that they require one nurse to manage their care. Her days are never the same, as situations with ICU patients can shift quickly. However, the task of caring for critically ill patients has become more challenging with the addition of COVID-19.

“I often describe taking care of critically ill patients as a ‘multi-seat see-saw,’ meaning you can’t just focus on trying to aggressively fix one problem, because it can have inverse effects on other body systems and make things worse,” Whitt said. “Still, things were much simpler prior to COVID. With COVID patients, you can be in full PPE (personal protective equipment) for long periods of time. If a patient is suspected of having or has COVID-19 and starts to decline, you can’t just run in the room to save them. You have to correctly put on all of your gear first and do what you can with very limited staff in the room.”

The need for strict protocols for wearing personal protection equipment while treating the highly contagious patients combined with the shortage of such equipment available has added to the stress of the nurses’ daily shifts. Whitt said medical staff must be careful when putting on and taking off their protective gear so as to not contaminate themselves in the process. The shortage of protection has resulted in the hospital reusing most of the gear, which Whitt says goes against everything they have been taught to do. 

“It makes for difficult situations when a patient is having respiratory difficulties on the ventilator or is experiencing a cardiac arrest. As nurses, we always put our patients first. With COVID-19, we have to be very conscientious of ensuring we have proper protective equipment prior to jumping in and helping a patient. We have to protect ourselves and our fellow staff,” she said.

During the COVID-19 crisis, Whitt has also trained to be the critical care unit charge nurse. The new position has been challenging—at times total chaos, she said—but also a nice change of pace as she has moved into the leadership role of managing a busy unit. The biggest lesson she has learned through the pandemic is to stay flexible and be thankful for her blessings. Those blessings include a career she loves, her hospital’s response to the virus, the fact that they have had few cases of COVID-19, and the nurses, doctors and respiratory therapists she works with on the critical care team.

Community is important, as Whitt learned years ago during her time at St. Mary’s. Social media has allowed her to stay in touch with many of her classmates and other SMHS alumni, many of whom are working in the medical field. 

“It’s nice to know that so many Pirates are out there fighting COVID-19 in a variety of areas,” Whitt said. “I think St. Mary’s really instills an appreciation and understanding of service to others, and I believe that is very evident in the career paths many St. Mary’s alumni chose. The community and bond that the St. Mary’s family has, even after graduation, is truly unique and special.”

By Amy G. Partain
Director of Communication
St. Mary’s High School

COVID-19 Profile: Tenley Barr ’11

#Alumni, #COVID-19 Profiles, #PiratesOnceAlways, #UnitedByCommunity
Tenley Barr ’11

Being a nurse in the cardiac surgical intensive care unit in Denver is not for the faint of heart. Tenley Barr’s night shifts there are filled with caring for one or two critically ill patients, administering their medications and monitoring their vital signs. These days Barr is working in the COVID ICU at NYU Langone Health in Manhattan. While the degree of care needed by COVID-19 patients is similar to those in the cardiac surgical ICU, the experience of working daily with COVID-19 patients is vastly different.

Barr ‘11 describes her days of caring for COVID-19 patients as “busy and intense,” as she administers seven to 10 medications, watches various monitors and machines in the rooms, and handles basic patient care requirements. Challenges come in the form of lack of resources and lack of time, which Barr said has made formulating specific treatment plans practically impossible. The resources needed to keep COVID-19 patients even relatively stable are strained, she said, as is the ability of ICU nurses to give the meticulous care that they are accustomed to providing. Then, she said, the sheer number of critically ill COVID-positive patients in the ICU is overwhelming. All of this results in shifts that are spent racing from one emergency to the next trying to keep people alive, Barr said.  

“They crash out of nowhere, and when they crash, they crash fast and hard, often leaving the teams of doctors and nurses helpless to save them,” Barr said. “Honestly, now there are times when I end a shift feeling inadequate and defeated as a nurse. I never felt that way before. Now, I simply do not have enough time to do the little things to provide the kind of care or comfort for patients I normally would. I have to remind myself to focus on the big picture—on helping patients stay alive another day. I have to remind myself when I go home that I’ve done everything I can for my patients, that I’ve done my best, but I struggle with it.”

Also challenging, Barr said, is navigating the dying process with COVID-positive patients and their families. With visiting hours extremely limited, or in many cases eliminated, due to the contagious and virulent nature of the virus, many COVID-19 patients dying alone, Barr said. 

“Before placing patients on ventilators, we make every effort to connect them with their families via a phone call or FaceTime. Too often it is the last communication they share,” Barr said. “Similarly, when we believe a patient is near death, we hold a phone to patients’ ears so their families can say goodbye. These final interactions are extremely emotional for patients and families, and for medical personnel, too. To be the only other person in the room when a person draws breath for the final time is an incredibly moving experience, one that is magnified by the circumstances around this pandemic. The challenge for me has been to remain strong for patients and families during a profoundly difficult time while managing my own emotions.”

The challenges and emotions of working COVID-19 patients have elevated the need for community for Barr. While Barr has remained close to her best friends from St. Mary’s since graduation—including Renata (Bucher) Kolinko , Amber (Leckey) Duval , Dani (Cichon) Stone, Katie Condon, and Anna Morton—and said they have always been wonderfully supportive, their support means more to her now. Barr said Jordan Burns, another St. Mary’s friend, has helped by reaching out to contacts she has in New York, providing whatever Barr has needed during her stay in the city. 

“All of the girls are so good to send me texts or video messages of encouragement and love,” she said. “They check in regularly to make sure I’m doing okay in New York City and to share stories of the exciting things happening in their own lives to help distract me from some of the sadness and challenges that are so prevalent out here. SMHS afforded me many blessings, including a great education. No less a blessing was the opportunity to build friendships with amazing people, friendships that remain intact and strong today.  I think that says a lot about the quality of the SMHS experience.”

One tangible reward Barr has experienced during the pandemic has been working with and learning from the “amazing ICU nurses and providers,” both in Denver and in New York City. The camaraderie and teamwork has been inspiring, she said. 

“The experience of working at NYU Langone Medical Center—one of the leading hospitals in the nation—has been remarkable. So, I’ve grown professionally,” she said. “I think I have also grown as a human. I’ve been forced to confront suffering, and that has caused me to consider important questions. I don’t have all the answers, but I think there has been a deepening of my faith as a result.”

Barr said being a nurse during this pandemic has been challenging for her—mentally, physically, emotionally, even morally. She said she is seeing a level of suffering she has never before witnessed. And with scarce resources, the care teams must decide the allocation of those resources, forcing them to literally make life and death decisions. As she experiences questions and doubts, Barr said she has turned to her faith.

“During times of questioning and doubt, I have found strength in prayer,” Barr said. “I pray before each shift asking God for strength in the face of suffering and death and His guidance in caring for my patients. I ask for comfort for my patients and their families and, selfishly, for comfort for myself. I turn to prayer after my shifts as well, asking for understanding and the fortitude to continue to do everything in my power to help as many people as possible. In the midst of all this, I sometimes forget there is much to be grateful for, so I try to remember to also give thanks. I also find it uplifting knowing that family and friends are praying for me and that, in the end, God is merciful and gives each of us what we need.”

While it might sound cliche, Barr said the biggest lesson she has learning during the COVID-19 pandemic is to not take the people in her life for granted. While the virus is most dangerous for the elderly and vulnerable persons, she said she has seen it also adversely affect the young and seemingly healthy. Regardless of the age of the patients, families are losing loved ones in a sudden and unexpected way.

Life is precious, and sometimes it ends abruptly.  Cherish your family and friends.  Hold them close. Take nothing for granted, and thank God for your blessings daily.”

Daily life has, of course, changed for everyone. And the class of 2020 has felt those changes deeply. When asked what advice she would give to the graduating seniors, Barr said she really liked a quote from philosopher Roger Scruton that her dad shared with her.

“Scruton said, ‘We are not asked to undo the work of creation or to rectify the Fall. The duty of a Christian is not to leave this world a better place. His duty is to leave this world a better man,’” she said. “I think that Scruton was saying that as humans, we can’t do better than to strive to lead lives aimed at becoming the people God always intended us to be. If we do that, however imperfectly, things will fall into place.”

By Amy G. Partain
Director of Communications
St. Mary’s High School

COVID-19 Profile: Colleen Berenguer ’11

#COVID-19 Profiles, #PiratesOnceAlways, #UnitedByCommunity, 2019-2020, Alumni

When Colleen (Walker) Berenguer ’11 graduated from St. Mary’s High School, a career in nursing wasn’t on her radar. Yet, nine years later, her days have been filled with caring for patients in Meridian, Idado, with a virus that just a months ago no one could have imagined. Berenguer is one of several St. Mary’s graduates who are on the frontlines caring for COVID-19 patients across the nation. Over the next few weeks, we will feature profiles of these alumni. (If you would like to be featured, please contact Amy Partain, director of Communications, at apartain@smhscs.org.)

While Meridian, Idaho, where Berenguer works, has not been hit hard during the pandemic, she said that working on the frontlines of the COVID-19 fight has been a sobering experience. The range of reactions to the virus has been surprising, Berenguer said, with many young people having no symptoms at all to patients in their mid-40s seeming fine one day and deteriorating rapidly the next. 

“You realize how serious it is when you see people who are otherwise healthy, with no other underlying conditions, and they are on oxygen and can’t make it to the bathroom on their own,” Berenguer said. “One of my patients was just 19 years old. After a five or six day stay in the ICU, the patient came back to the COVID unit, but then died. It’s humbling to watch this virus.”

Working long shifts in conditions that are less than ideal given the shortage of personal protection equipment has illuminated the need for a better work-home balance, Berenguer said. That has been difficult, however, when news of the virus is everywhere and it seems to be all everyone is talking about. Working with the same people day in and day out with little chance to socialize outside of work circles, Berenguer said she has reached out more, calling her grandmother and her parents.

She is working in a city far from her family and has lived alone since the death of her husband, Curtis, in December 2017. Needing connection with nurses outside of those she sees daily, Berenguer has reconnected with many of her St. Mary’s classmates since the pandemic began, including Barr, Cichon, Alicia Fish ‘12 and Amber (Leckey) Duval. She had lost touch with many of her classmates in the years since graduation, but has found that the St. Mary’s family was eager to re-establish friendships that hadn’t been nurtured since high school. Berenguer, who started working as a nurse in July 2019, said it’s been wonderful to reconnect and to learn from those who have been in the profession longer.

“I reached out to some of the nurses I knew from St. Mary’s. We’re all in different nursing areas, but we all have something to give to each other,” she said. “Using that old network has made me a better nurse. St. Mary’s is a tight knit community, which is such a unique thing. It’s so easy to feel isolated. This experience has been a reminder that I need to seek community.”

As the class of 2020 approaches graduation having faced a senior year they never could have imagined, Berenguer’s advice to them is to stay connected. It’s easy, she said, to leave behind those high school relationships as graduates move into the next phase of life. Having herself rediscovered those friendships recently, her best advice is to not let those friendships go.

“My life just went in a different direction, but now I wish I had nursed those relationships all along. I would tell the class of 2020 to stay close with your friends from high school,” Berenguer said. “Stay close with your friends’ parents. When I visited St. Mary’s last year, Mrs. Cichon gave me a hug and welcomed me back. St. Mary’s is a tight knit community—it’s a family—which is such a unique thing. Don’t let those friendships fade.”

By Amy G. Partain
Director of Communications
St. Mary’s High School