Feature Story  |  Long Read

Ramapo Nursing Rose to the Needs of a pandemic-plagued Healthcare system

by Angela Daidone  |  Winter 2021

We’ve heard the stories before:  Firefighters rushing into a burning building to rescue someone trapped in the flames. Police officers coming to the aid of a stranded, frightened motorist caught in flooding waters. Soldiers putting themselves in harm’s way to save a wounded comrade. They’re labeled heroes by the public, often shunning the praise they rightfully deserve.

In the last year, nurses and healthcare workers have emerged as the country’s newest heroes, facing an insidious enemy – namely, Covid-19 caused by the coronavirus – that has taken the lives of more than 500,000 Americans and sickened tens of millions more.

“No one could have foreseen a year ago that our country would be entrenched in such a healthcare crisis. It’s unlike anything we have faced in a century,” said Kathleen Burke, assistant dean of Ramapo College’s Nursing Program. Area hospitals were overwhelmed, with cafeterias being converted to make-shift intensive care units to accommodate the rapidly-rising number of patients. Help was desperately needed.

Ramapo’s nursing faculty, students and alumni answered the call.

Burke said the College’s nursing faculty, many of whom also are hospital staff, had to act quickly.

“Everyone was like, okay, how do we make this work? It took a huge amount of innovation,” Burke said, adding that they went into it “blind, having to change protocols daily. I heard from staff that they had to take a crash course on how to become an ICU nurse in a week just to accommodate the influx of patients. It was truly an interdisciplinary effort.”

Burke also said the students in the nursing class of 2020 received approval by the state to work in mid-May – a few weeks earlier than usual – because of the pandemic and the need to get them in the field as soon as possible. “But they met the challenge and were prepared to do the work they trained for.”

Yet, despite the increased demands that this crisis has placed on the nursing profession, Ramapo’s nursing program has experienced a noticeable surge in enrollment numbers since the pandemic began last spring. In a typical academic admissions cycle, the College’s nursing program has been one of the most popular choices of incoming undergraduate students, receiving about 700 applications, with 100 students accepted.

Burke noted that last year nearly 1,200 applications poured in, and the 2020-2021 freshman class grew to 167 students. “It’s remarkable, but not surprising. Students who enter the nursing profession are special. They’re driven and they feel they have a calling to help people.”

We aim to help promote the best possible quality of life and get creative with window visits, video calls, and patio visits, while masked up from six feet away. But sometimes a hug from a loved one is a lot more effective than any medication you can prescribe.”
– Katie Balsamo Arno ’15
Edward Saiff, dean of Ramapo’s School of Theoretical and Applied Science, agreed. “Nursing requires a great intellect; nobody slides through nursing,” Saiff said. “The work environment can be challenging and the shifts exhausting, but nursing is a career that also brings a lot of satisfaction. At the end of the day, you go home knowing that you’ve saved a life, eased someone’s pain, or ushered a newborn into the world.”

The last year has been especially challenging for nurses. In the early months of 2020, Covid-19 patients completely filled hospital space, elective surgeries were put on hold, and patients with non-emergency conditions were directed to telemedicine diagnosis and treatment. 

The pandemic also brought another unexpected blow. “Healthcare workers weren’t prepared for the emotional toll it was taking on them,” Burke said. “Family-centered care was suddenly not allowed. Nurses were FaceTiming with family members who weren’t allowed to see or visit their loved ones. They needed to provide ‘bundled care’ – instead of making typical rounds to take vitals, check in on patients, etc. They were only allowed periodic visits to patient rooms to cut down the risk of infection to themselves.”

Ramapo alumna Katie Balsamo Arno ’15 is a palliative nurse practitioner in the Ann Arbor, Michigan, area. Originally from Berkeley Heights, N.J., she received her BSN in 2015 and earned her MSN in 2020. Katie previously worked as a hospice nurse case manager which, she said, meant dealing with very fragile patients. It was understood, she said, that the patients were living the last days of their lives, often at home, and the families played an important part of the patient’s well-being. “This is quite different now. The stress of the pandemic has intensified for the patients and the families who are living in heightened anxiety and fear,” Arno said. 

In many facilities, constantly changing state rules and regulations dictate visitor restrictions to help keep their residents safe from the virus. “While I understand that safety is always a priority, it breaks my heart to see my patients decline so quickly and eventually die from loneliness,” Arno said. “We aim to help promote the best possible quality of life and get creative with window visits, video calls, and patio visits, while masked up from six feet away. But sometimes a hug from a loved one is a lot more effective than any medication you can prescribe. It is so challenging to help provide comfort in these situations. There is truly something to be said about the power in holding someone’s hand and giving them a warm smile.”

New Bridge Medical Center welcomed Ramapo College nursing students with a group thumbs-up

“This is community partnerships at their best”

-Kathleen M. Burke, Ramapo’s Assistant Dean of Nursing

New Bridge Medical Center in Paramus, N.J., welcomed Ramapo College nursing students to its Vaccination Program. Ramapo students will also be at The Valley Hospital in Ridgewood, N.J., assisting in its vaccination delivery this semester.
These are among the challenges, Burke said, that nurses are trying to cope with on the job, and nursing faculty are trying to help prepare students who are seeing patients as part of their training.

“Our junior students are doing their clinicals in 12-hour shifts to provide a more realistic nursing experience. The seniors are on shifts in three area hospital DEUs (Dedicated Education Units). Both are wonderful learning experiences but they did not expect to have to deal with very ill patients in the middle of a pandemic,” Burke said.

She emphasized that the College’s Nursing Program also prepares students to work with social workers, who are facing their own challenges as mental health issues become more prevalent; nutritionists to help evaluate rising food insecurity; and the ever-changing safety guidelines and restrictions from state and national health organizations.

“Resilience. Dedication. Love for our chosen profession. This is what nursing is all about. This is what we do,” Burke said.

Katie Balsamo Arno summed it up.

Katie Balsamo
Nursing grad Katie Balsamo Arno ’15 wearing a face mask.
“One defining moment in my nursing care since this crisis arose was when I went to visit my patient’s family soonafter the patient expired, and I realized I could not give them a comforting hug in their time of need,” she said. “I realized that being a nurse is so much more than pushing meds. Families look to their nurse for guidance, education, and support in some of life’s most challenging times. I have come to realize that nursing is one of the greatest, most rewarding professions. Not only do you get to make a difference in someone’s life, but they make a huge difference in your life as well.”