By Zandy Dudiak, Communications coordinator
It’s been a while since Sister Rebecca Nolan, Amy Armanious, and Kathy Conrad have used their nursing skills in a medical setting. COVID-19, and specifically the Moderna vaccine, has put them back into direct care on the job, serving as observers in Pittsburgh Mercy’s vaccination clinic over the last month.
Although they have served as nurses within their faith communities since leaving jobs in hospital settings, their work as the Pittsburgh Mercy Parish Nurse & Health Ministry Program team focuses more on educating faith community nurses and health ministers than actually using their nursing skills caring for patients. But, Amy assures, “that nursing knowledge, skill, decision-making, and critical thinking doesn’t leave you.”
Since last spring, Sister Rebecca Nolan, program manager, and health ministry specialists Amy Armanious and Kathy Conrad have found themselves Zooming into the world of virtual programs, including their annual faith community nursing course, retreat, and prayer breakfast when in-person events were against mitigation efforts. They even added a virtual candlelight meditation/prayer gathering, peer support meetings, and offered inspirational quotes for Pittsburgh Mercy’s social media sites to lift people’s spirits as the coronavirus cast a dark shadow on people’s lives.
Even with all their regular undertakings, when Pittsburgh Mercy President and CEO Tony Beltran asked for their help in acting as trained medical professionals in the observation room at the South 9th Street vaccination clinic, they answered his call. While their assignment is focused on looking for people who may be experiencing a reaction to the vaccine, particularly anaphylaxis, they have found themselves clarifying myths and misconceptions around the virus and vaccine—and injecting their wisdom from years in nursing to bring comfort to those who are afraid.
“I think one of the things we may have done is put people at ease by speaking to them about what to expect,” says Sister Rebecca. “I think we’ve tried to have a calming effect on them.”
Sister Rebecca walked a woman prone to panic attacks through some breathing exercises by pretending to smell flowers and blow out candles. She also offered the woman some juice. Sister Rebecca checked the woman’s pulse repeatedly to reassure her and once her anxiety lessened, she was able to leave. Kathy also encountered a woman who was experiencing signs of “major anxiety.” “She didn’t know what side effect to expect,” Kathy says. “She was just fearful. I offered to pray with her and we did.”
Education is key
Education is also an important component of what Sister Rebecca, Amy, and Kathy have offered those receiving vaccines. They review what to expect in terms of side effects, sharing the most common ones, but they also get specific with some of those newly vaccinated individuals. Sister Rebecca says she suggests folks ask their doctors for advice about postponing X-rays and mammograms because of temporary swelling or enlargements of lymph nodes under the arm. Also, they reassure individuals that the Moderna shots do not contain live viruses.
One woman was as nervous for her second shot as she was for the first one. Sister Rebecca gently reminded the woman that she was still standing to tell her about the first shot. Empowering them with information puts them at ease, she says. “When they know what to expect, they deal better,” Sister Rebecca says.
The Parish Nurse & Health Ministry Program colleagues generally deal with educating parish nurses and health ministers in the community and/or serving at their churches. Working at the vaccination clinic has given them a chance to encounter the homeless, disabled, and elderly persons served by Pittsburgh Mercy, as well as those struggling with addiction or coming back into society after incarceration. In her first day at the clinic, Amy encountered individuals who are on chemotherapy and dialysis, as well as those who deal with the daily struggles of deafness, blindness, spina bifida, and cerebral palsy.
“They are dealing with not only the risk of COVID-19, they’re dealing with everyday issues,” she said. “There were cases there that were heartbreaking.”
Meeting people where they are
“We’re always trying to meet people where they are,” Kathy adds. “It’s given us a greater appreciation for the vulnerable populations Pittsburgh Mercy serves. There’s a true affection people have for each other. It’s just seeing how skilled our people are in taking care of them. It carries out what Pittsburgh Mercy is about— taking care of vulnerable people.”
Amy notes that the people she encountered at the clinic were exhibiting more anxiety compared to individuals she had seen when working at flu vaccination sites in the past. She attributes that to fear because the disease is highly contagious and there are asymptomatic carriers, so you don’t recognize that people are sick, as you would with influenza.
“With this, it’s like the invisible enemy,” Amy says. “It adds to their anxiety.”
Sister Rebecca’s heart was touched by one person served from a Pittsburgh Mercy Intellectual Disabilities Services residential site who said she wished Sister Rebecca was her mother. Another woman blessed her for what she is doing.
Kathy cited one colleague who made three trips to the clinic in one day with separate groups of persons served to make sure all received the vaccine. Kathy says tears welled in her eyes when she saw an older woman get so excited because the vaccine meant she could finally see her grandbaby. Sister Rebecca added that one man shared that he only got the vaccine so he could see his grandson. “I’m so glad I got this shot,” one woman told Sister Rebecca. “I don’t care how sick it makes me.”
Kathy was also touched by the attention that a younger male Pittsburgh Mercy colleague showed to an elderly woman entrusted to his care. Amy observed colleagues helping persons served with disabilities ambulate, noting the energy and care that it takes.
More blessed to give
“I feel we are getting more out of this than we are giving to others,” says Sister Rebecca. “Our mission is to serve—and we certainly are serving.”
“That’s the rewarding part,” Kathy says.
When someone has received a second shot, Kathy says she tries to make it fun for them by congratulating them. She also asks who in their family still needs shots. For one man, she provided some language to use to allay some of the fears of the vaccine expressed by family members “People trust doctors and nurses,” she says. “People also trust the people who they love.”
As people leave the clinic, Amy asks to check their arm for redness. She tells them, “’Oh, it looks great.’ You try to encourage them. ‘I’m so glad you came.’” Amy says she was also heartened to see individuals in their late 20s and early 30s receiving the vaccine. She hoped they might be role models for their peers, who have the highest rates of infection by age group. “I encouraged them to go back to their friends and younger family members and advise them to get the vaccine when it becomes available to them,” she said.
The registered nurses also were able to share their own vaccine experiences with those in the vaccine observation room. Sister Rebecca had no side effects with either shot. Kathy shared that her arm was sore the first day and that she took ibuprofen. But the second day, she had a temperature, chills, felt “wiped out,” and later experienced some residual fatigue. Amy developed extreme fatigue, body aches, and chills the second day. She practiced self-care, listened to her body, rested, and felt better later.
The team is grateful for the experience and the chance to make a difference during the pandemic. They are also quick to credit those working very hard doing registration, traffic control, vaccinating, database entry, scheduling, making phone calls to set up appointments, and all the other observers.
“I am personally inspired by all of the Pittsburgh Mercy colleagues so generously and graciously giving of their time,” Sister Rebecca says. “That doesn’t start with us. We see them on their way out.”
“I felt very proud when I was there and at peace in my heart to know that Pittsburgh Mercy had reached out to such vulnerable populations of people to help when other entities may have shunned them,” Amy says.
Sister Rebecca says, in her own prayers, she asks God to please bless all the people and to make their side effects minimal. “In some ways, it’s a spiritual thing,” Sister Rebecca says. “I don’t know how to explain it. I think we’re reaching people on a different level.”
Kathy agrees, saying it’s hard to articulate about the personal connections they are making with the people served. “I remember the anxious faces,” Kathy says. “When you look across the room, it’s a cross-section of His people. We are called to serve the way Christ served others. It makes me ask if I’m doing enough and whether I should be doing more.”