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Heroes For Better

Nurses Connect Families With Patients Who Have COVID-19

Nurses Take on New Roles During Pandemic

Paula Dunskis, APRN, and Theresa “Terry” Strzelczyk, APRN, usually work as providers in Cardiology at Northwestern Medicine Bluhm Cardiovascular Institute. Margaret “Mags” Hefferon, APRN, usually works in Orthopaedic Surgery. But all three have a background in critical care, which they put to quick use during the COVID-19 pandemic in the Medical Intensive Care Unit (MICU) at Northwestern Memorial Hospital.

In new communication facilitator roles, Dunskis, Strzelczyk and Hefferon never enter patients’ rooms. They’ve traded endotracheal tubes and IV catheters for iPads and telephones to connect patients who have COVID-19 to their families, and to keep families informed about their loved one’s status.

“‘Invaluable’ is the only word to describe this connection,” says Strzelczyk. “Families are so grateful, and it makes such a difference for patients’ general and emotional well-being.”

Most patients with COVID-19 in the MICU are intubated and sedated. On top of this, families are unable to visit their loved ones due to the visitor restrictions in place to prevent the spread of the virus.

To bridge the gap in connection, Dunskis, Strzelczyk and Hefferon call families daily to review their loved ones’ overall clinical state, discuss their plan of care in simple and easy-to-understand terminology, and provide as much support to the families as possible during this difficult time. They also work with the MICU nurses to facilitate FaceTime calls via iPad between families and patients.

“Continuity of care and communication are key,” says Dunskis. “Because I talk with family members daily, they start to know my voice, and sometimes that alone eases the anxiety. I will stay on the phone with them until I am confident that they have a clear understanding of what is happening.”

“A lot of anxiety can decrease with more knowledge,” adds Hefferon.

A lot of anxiety can decrease with more knowledge.
— Margaret “Mags” Hefferon, APRN

All three clinicians say that the gratitude from families abounds.

“The families have been so sweet,” says Hefferon. “They’re worried about us along with their loved ones. They keep telling me they are praying for us all and to be safe.”