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University News

Arms Open Wide for Nurses

University community takes care of the health workers providing the care

Posted in: Graduate School, Health

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Montclair State University’s nursing students are making a difference during these challenging times.

Evonna Banko didn’t expect to be on the front lines of the coronavirus outbreak. A school nurse in Paterson, she was finishing her final classes in the RN to BSN program at Montclair State, the end of a 20-year journey as an adult learner who returned to school, first to learn English when she moved to the United States from Poland, then earning professional degrees as she advanced in a career she loves.

But with schools closed and her inbox full of emails pleading for volunteers to help, Banko answered a call to assist at one of the state’s drive-through COVID-19 testing centers and has since signed on to work at a long-term residential care facility in Cedar Grove, New Jersey.

“I have to be out there,” she says. “I have to be helping. There are not enough hands.”

Banko is just one of the Montclair State nursing students making a difference in a profession where long hours, limited personal gear and sickness has taken its toll. “It’s a horrible situation,” Banko admits.

The Montclair State community has risen to take care of the nurses and other health-care workers and first responders most needed to confront the pandemic, offering wellness resources, reminding the public to social distance, providing protective masks and shields – and hugs.

“These are unprecedented times, and I’m seeing people rise to their best selves. We are all adjusting, proactive and supporting one another,” says School of Nursing Dean Janice Smolowitz.


“This pandemic right now is affecting everyone in some capacity,” observes Amanda Steinberg, a graduate student who will earn her master’s in Public and Organizational Relations this May.

Steinberg has helped launch a social media campaign called #GiveANurseAHug for, a career support and news site. The goal is to flood Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and TikTok with millions of virtual hugs and tags for nurses loved and admired by May 12, the end of National Nurses Week.

“It’s just a good way for nurses to de-stress from everything they’re dealing with and to see on social media some comfort and positivity,” Steinberg says. “Whether you know someone who is a doctor or a nurse or someone in your community who is dealing with a loved one being sick, that’s the whole point of this campaign, to take a second of your day to spread love to nurses and other health-care professionals.”

Montclair State’s Nurses

Shannon Leahy, another of the RN to BSN students juggling work, school and home, has an added pressure at work at a New Jersey children’s hospital. Leahy is expecting a baby later this spring. “This is definitely something I’m going to tell my child – I was pregnant with you during the coronavirus crisis.”

Leahy says her hospital administration is doing the best it can to protect nurses. “But this has rocked my world. There are no standards, no policy, everything you thought you knew you can’t go by any longer. It’s scary,” she says. “You do the best to protect yourself and help your patients.”

Banko adds that her patients thank her for coming to work, thank her for being there. “It’s broken my heart so many times.” And while she understands the risks and that her family worries about her, she adds, “I couldn’t just stay home.”

Flattening the Curve

Not everyone who wants to be on the front lines has been able to do so. “I am restless to help,” says Nadia Shaikh ’13, a medical student who graduated from Montclair State with a degree in Biology. She’s been sidelined from patient care to conserve personal protective gear for certified health providers.

Shaikh has redirected her disappointment with action, including volunteering with her community and following the stay-at-home orders.

“Taking the proper preventative measures of social distancing, staying home, only going out for essentials and wearing a face mask in public, people think that’s inaction,” Shaikh says, “but that in itself is an actionable item of trying to safeguard others.”

“Social distancing can be very isolating,” notes Diana Cabezas, a doctoral candidate in Family Science and Human Development. Cabezas provides maternal support and has been working on new ways to provide care in areas of North Jersey hard hit by the coronavirus. Virtual support groups offered in both English and Spanish four times a week address social isolation for new mothers and Zoom sessions for women preparing for birth.

“Seeing how this pandemic impacts families and communities, it is important to find support, ways to cope and take safety precautions,” Cabezas says.

“It’s also necessary to view the health disparities through an intersectional lens to continue to advocate for communities during this COVID-19 pandemic. There is no doubt that the effects of the coronavirus will be experienced both now and later in our communities, but we will continue to push forward. Though there may be barriers, there is unity in working together to make a difference in this challenging time.”

Crisis Counseling for First Responders

“Montclair State’s students have been remarkable,” says Smolowitz. “They are working nights, days, various shifts and extended hours, caring for their families, committed to their class work, and still managing to check in with each other.”

Students professionally responding to the COVID-19 crisis often share their experiences, meeting online for class and support, adds Professor Amanda Birnbaum, chairperson of the Department of Public Health.

“Some work in health departments, hospitals, pharmacies, working long days without breaks, seeing coworkers become sick. Some have children who are now at home trying distance learning. Many live with family members who are health-care providers,” Birnbaum says.

“It was incredibly powerful to hear their stories, some working on the front lines, some working from their homes, several of them who are international students talking about how they see the virus and response developing in their home countries and feeling deeply concerned,” Birnbaum says.

“I felt so overwhelmed. I had to stay still and quiet for some time, just to process and unpack the intensity and weight of what I had just heard.”

Rachel Sugerman ’15 MA, a doctoral candidate and licensed professional counselor, shares concerns for the mental health of the health-care professionals. “They are being asked to take care of others while also managing their own intense emotional responses to the crisis,” she says.

In a video produced by Montclair State, Sugerman provides counseling for the nurses, doctors, first responders and other health-care workers on the front lines. Among the advice:

  • Consider developing a self-care plan and work with a buddy or co-worker to monitor one another for level of functioning, fatigue level and stress symptoms.
  • Check in with yourself often and be on the lookout for symptoms of burnout, which can include things like sadness or apathy, irritability or agitation, feelings of isolation, emotional exhaustion, cynicism and reduced sense of accomplishment, or that nothing you do can help.
  • Check in with yourself for symptoms of secondary traumatic stress or compassion fatigue, which can include things like physical symptoms of stress, such as rapid heartbeat, sweating, trembling, feeling hyper vigilant or easily startled, having vivid dreams of situations related to the crisis or feelings of guilt, anger or hopelessness.
  • Check in with yourself and your co-workers often and reach out to a mental health-care provider if needed.

In offering advice to the front lines, Sugerman offers a reminder, “You do not have to face this crisis on your own.”

Find additional resources curated by the School of Nursing and the University Health Center on the Montclair State website.

Story by Staff Writer Marilyn Joyce Lehren

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