Just six months into her nursing career, Elizabeth Volna finds herself on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic.
A registered nurse in the trauma/surgical intensive care unit at UPMC Presbyterian Hospital, Volna graduated from Saint Vincent College in 2018 with a degree in biochemistry, before graduating from the University of Pittsburgh’s Accelerated Bachelor’s of Nursing program in August 2019.
When she was hired shortly thereafter at UPMC Presbyterian, Volna was eager to begin a career in a field on which she had her sights set since still a high schooler. Little did she know, she was about to be thrust into a worldwide medical crisis never seen before.
“Never in a million years did I think that six months into my career, I would be working on the frontlines of a pandemic,” Volna said. “I feel proud to be helping out in this time, though. My parents raised me to be the good man in a storm.”
As an intensive care nurse, Volna has become accustomed to working long hours with critical care patients suffering from various conditions. Since the spread of COVID-19, though, her daily routine has been turned upside down.
“The unit that I work on has been transformed into the COVID-19 response unit,” she explained. “A typical day of work now is completely different than when taking care of sick trauma patients. We work at least three 12-hour shifts a week. Being a trauma intensive care nurse, we are trained to be prepared for anything that comes through the door. However, when the entire unit has patients in airborne precautions, our care has changed completely.”
One of the more challenging aspects of treating COVID-19, said Volna, is how rapidly the virus can deteriorate a patient’s respiratory system, often leading to the onset of acute respiratory distress syndrome, a life-threatening buildup of fluid in the lungs.
“It’s much quicker than anything we have worked with before,” she said. “We must always be on our toes. Most sick COVID-19 patients are on a mechanical ventilator.”
Adding to the obstacles of treating COVID-19 is the extremely contagious nature of the virus, which has led to the implementation of strict safety policies at hospitals across the country.
“Our staff has been very proactive in educating us on the proper use of personal protective equipment (PPE),” stated Volna. “We even have staff assigned to observe our use of PPE to ensure we are utilizing it properly. Proper use of PPE in the hospital is the number-one preventative method in not contracting COVID-19.”
Along with the enhanced safety measures in place for health care workers, hospitals have also enacted policies that prohibit visitors in the hopes of limiting exposure to the virus. While it can be difficult for patients and their families, Volna feels that she and her colleagues are diligent in communicating with those affected.
“This policy has made communication between nurses and family members over the phone extremely important,” she said. “We are not only caring for the patients medically, but we are also the hands to hold during these scary times.”
Having the chance to offer this aid and compassion is what initially drew Volna’s interest in nursing while in high school in Meadville, Pennsylvania.
“I first sparked an interest in nursing when I was 18 years old,” she recalled. “I became a certified nursing assistant in a nursing home in my hometown, where I learned compassion and patient care skills.”
Volna continued to work as a certified nursing assistant after enrolling at Saint Vincent College, and as the biochemistry major thrived in the classroom, her interest in nursing continued to grow. While Saint Vincent didn’t offer a nursing program at the time, Volna’s concentration in pre-allied health, along with the support of her faculty in the Herbert W. Boyer School of Natural Sciences, Mathematics and Computing, more than prepared her for her time after Saint Vincent.
“Many people at SVC influenced me in wonderful ways,” she said, “but especially Dr. Matthew Fisher and Dr. Bettie Davis. They were – and still are – extremely supportive of every student they have had in class. They always had their doors open to students and were the parental figures for students away from home.”
In addition to the educational foundation Volna received at SVC, she also credits her experience as a Bearcat student-athlete for instilling the value of teamwork, which she sees first-hand each day in the hospital.
“Whether it was on the cross country course or the lacrosse field,” she explained, “I learned how to work alongside others effectively toward one goal. Through athletics, I learned that everyone has a job and a place on the team, and everyone contributes in some way. In the hospital, not one job is more important than another. What is important is that we all work cohesively toward one goal, and that is the health and well-being of our patients.”
Though unable to provide an exact number, Volna said that the number of COVID-19 patients at UPMC Presbyterian continues to grow, but feels that the hospital is adequately prepared for what may come
“Right now,” she said, “it still feels like the calm before the storm. Our patient population is manageable, but the hospital is preparing for a surge in admissions in the coming weeks. It can be overwhelming, but our staff is extremely supportive of one another. I couldn’t imagine working with any other group of nurses during this time.”
When she feels overwhelmed, Volna thinks back to another formative moment from her time at Saint Vincent College, one shared by countless other classmates and alumni.
“As a freshman,” she said, “you receive a little red book, ‘The Rule of Saint Benedict.’ It is more than just a little book. It holds the Benedictine Hallmarks that you will never forget. I think the Hallmark that Saint Vincent College has fostered in me the most is ‘community.’
“This has especially inspired me to give back without expectation of reward and set a foot forward for the greater good of our community.”
As her patient volume increases and her shifts grow longer, Volna remains committed to excelling in her dream career, saying that her only long-term career goal is to become the best nurse that she can be. Regardless of where this journey may lead her, she will forever look back fondly on her four years at Saint Vincent College.
“I am thankful for the Saint Vincent College community that shaped who I am today,” she said, “including professors, coaches, peers and teammates. I am truly blessed.”
PHOTO: Elizabeth Volna, C'18, dons her personal protective equipment during a shift at UPMC Presbyterian Hospital