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Learn to Adapt

This faculty member balanced life during the pandemic as a professor and nurse.
Erin Kelley, NKU alumna and faculty member
During the first crucial months of the pandemic, Erin Kelley’s career shifted dramatically. Kelley, a 2011 alumna of Northern Kentucky University and professor of nursing at NKU, has not only been teaching future nurses, but she was also a bedside nurse herself at St. Elizabeth Healthcare.

“I balanced it all by reminding myself that people need me—my patients and my students—and I am blessed to have been in a position to care for both of them,” she says.

Nobody could have predicted how quickly COVID-19 overtook our way of life, but one can always prepare themselves to the best of their ability for the future. While feeling “as prepared as a new graduate can be when starting in a new career” after graduating from NKU, Kelley can confidently say she felt prepared for what was to come in her career.

“The thing I remember most is how caring the professors were. The clinical reasoning courses and simulations taught me to be flexible and think innovatively—two things that are incredibly important when working in the medical field,” Kelley says. “Health care has always been an unpredictable field, but even more so during a pandemic.”

Working shifts that were “long and sweaty,” Kelley had first-hand experience of the exhaustion and fear that comes with working in the medical field during one of the worst outbreaks in decades.

“You have to learn to adapt,” she says. “I was in awe at the dedication that my fellow nurses had. They are truly some of the most remarkable people I’ve ever met. The sacrifices they’re making every day for their patients and students is amazing.”

Medical professionals have been on the frontline during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the impact it’s had on nurses, doctors and faculty alike has been crystal clear.

“The only way to survive a pandemic is as a team. St. Elizabeth has been great about keeping workers protected and supporting their wellbeing during this time,” she says.

“I was in awe at the dedication that my fellow nurses had. They are truly some of the most remarkable people I’ve ever met. The sacrifices they’re making every day for their patients and students is amazing.”

Kelley and her team, despite the lack of resources early on, had to work together as a unit to assure their patients were safe and comfortable. She notes that a handful of her coworkers were working more than 60 hours a week when staff was needed.

The pandemic left everyone confused and concerned, especially those in the hospital—whether it was related to COVID-19 or not. Would patients be able to see their families due to social-distancing limitations? Would visitors spend time with them while they recovered, or in more unfortunate cases, say their goodbyes to their loved ones without putting themselves at risk?

“Patients were scared and unsure, but the [Infectious Diseases Response Team] does such an excellent job at being caring and comforting. They were innovative and would implement things like video conferencing so patients could still communicate with their loved ones,” Kelley says. “Even in the extra layers of protective equipment, the nurses are focused on sitting with the patients, holding their hands and offering comfort to overcome the stress and isolation associated with COVID-based hospitalizations.”

Throughout her career, Kelley worked at the bedside of patients in orthopedics as well as pediatrics, critical care, psychiatry and care coordination until she accepted a promotion within St. Elizabeth to train new nurses.

“I couldn’t ask for a better group of individuals to work with,” she says. “All of the educators at St. Elizabeth have really gone above and beyond to ensure the nurses at the bedside are prepared for their new roles. They have a fantastic simulation center, and they’ve been adjusting and rolling out teleconference trainings to maintain social distancing.”

The pandemic also hit academia hard, and it wasn’t just students who felt the impact. As a full-time professor at NKU, Kelley was dealing with repercussions of COVID-19 in the classroom as well.

“As a faculty member, it has been a huge adjustment,” Kelley says. “It wasn’t as simple as moving my courses online or recording some video lectures. You really have to transform your entire educational approach to keep the students engaged in this new online environment.”

Kelley commends her nursing faculty members at NKU, who have been fully dedicated to ensuring students are still receiving a quality education despite the limitations of COVID-19.

“We have a great mix of newer and experienced faculty. It’s a nice blend because the newer faculty bring innovative technologies and creative ideas, and the more experienced faculty help work those ideas into the curriculum and program while offering support and encouragement to the newer faculty,” she says.

Kelley is thankful for her position on the nursing team at NKU, despite the challenges and the time it takes from her schedule.

“It is more than worth it if it leads to student success. At the end of the day, all faculty are concerned about the happiness and achievement of our students,” she says.

COVID-19 has completely changed how American society functions. It can be frustrating to cancel events with friends or family and follow certain protocols in public, but Kelley urges anyone feeling doubtful of the impact of COVID precautions to do what they can to continue to flatten the curve.

“It’s easy to feel burnt-out on wearing masks and following the extra recommended precautions, but it is worth it if it prevents a health care worker from having to leave their family to work 60-hour weeks. And it takes everyone in the community to help control the spread,” she says.

About This Article

Kelsey Bungenstock ('16)
Contributor, NKU Magazine
Published March 2021
Photography by Scott Beseler

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