Celebrating Nurses: Throughout COVID crisis, nurses bond like family, accept change

Kevin Riley, editor of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, hosted the virtual presentation of the 16th annual Celebrating Nurses awards.
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Kevin Riley, editor of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, hosted the virtual presentation of the 16th annual Celebrating Nurses awards.

Nurses are continuing to inspire us as the COVID-19 crisis moves into its second year with waves of upticks and slowdowns in cases and deaths.

It’s been tough and stressful, but nurses, such as Emory University Hospital critical care nurse Danielle Giaritelli, are coping by leaning on each other.

In the early days of the pandemic, Giaritelli and her co-workers didn’t know how to handle the stress and couldn’t imagine what they’d be facing.

“But ultimately that led to our unit being like a family,” said Giaritelli. “My family was my rock. But they didn’t understand what was going on, neither could other people outside of work.”

Like Giaritelli, nursing veteran Jody Leonard believes talking to colleagues – including first responders – has helped her.

“The stress, the sadness – every emotion you can imagine – what we deal with in a 12-hour shift – it’s indescribable what we see sometimes,” said Leonard, a nurse in the Emergency Department at Southern Regional Medical Center.

Nurses are coming to accept many pandemic-related changes, including face masks, which pre-pandemic were worn only in flu season or with compromised patients, she said.

Coping with even that one change – of 24/7 masking at work – hasn’t been easy, said Kathleen LePain, a Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at Piedmont Athens Regional Medical Center.

“You can’t tell by people’s eyes if this family understands what’s going on,” she said.

Emory’s Giaritelli said the pandemic has opened the public’s eyes “to what our jobs entail and what we go through.

“Nursing was hard before COVID in the ICU with our patients,” she said. “COVID just added another element and made it harder.”

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution celebrated nurses for a 16th year with a live-streamed virtual event on May 11. Ten top nurses were spotlighted after being selected by an independent panel of judges from 1,000-plus nominees.

ajc.com

Beth Dziczkowski, Northside Hospital Cherokee

Beth Dziczkowski never backs down from a challenging assignment in the Intensive Care Unit at Northside Hospital Cherokee.

And even with the new challenges of COVID-19, the critical care nurse maintains her strong work ethic, her coworkers say.

“She is a highly-skilled, extremely knowledgeable, compassionate team player who consistently picks up extra shifts to help the unit,” said Coley King, a critical care nurse for Northside Cherokee Rapid Response.

Dziczkowski will buy breakfast and lunch for coworkers during busy days and creates personalized Christmas stockings for all the employees.

RN Danielle Giaritelli does the little things that make a difference for a patient. She never rushes but spends time to make them feel safe. Courtesy of Crew Atlanta
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RN Danielle Giaritelli does the little things that make a difference for a patient. She never rushes but spends time to make them feel safe. Courtesy of Crew Atlanta

Danielle Giaritelli, Emory Healthcare

Danielle Giaritelli doesn’t let the stress of taking care of COVID-19 patients rob her of the joy she has caring for others.

“For every several weeks of bad days or weeks, I always have this redefining moment that brings me back to why I became a nurse,” said the critical care nurse at Emory University Hospital.

Once, when caring for a mother and son, both COVID patients, she took extra measures so the son could be in his mother’s room to hold her hand while she was dying. Giaritelli saw one life pass while the other recovered and was getting ready for discharge.

“I was crying; he was crying,” she said. “That moment was kind of why I do what I do.”

RN Jody Leonard has wanted to be a nurse for as long as she can remember.
Courtesy of Crew Atlanta
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RN Jody Leonard has wanted to be a nurse for as long as she can remember. Courtesy of Crew Atlanta

Jody Leonard, Southern Regional Medical Center

Emergency room nurse Jody Leonard treats each patient with genuine concern, going beyond expectations and making interventions for their care.

When an uninsured woman came into Southern Regional Medical Center with needs that required specialized care, Leonard jumped into action. She connected the woman to the hospital’s financial counseling and then with a well-respected surgeon for immediate treatment.

“Normally, as the triage nurse, you just move on to the next patient,” Leonard said. “Something just told me I need to get this lady some help. I sensed the despair in her eyes.”

The Lincoln, Nebraska, native always knew growing up that she would be a nurse. She endured numerous surgeries due to congenital heart disease and other illnesses.

Kathleen LePain, RN, Piedmont Healthcare  Athens. Courtesy of Crew Atlanta
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Kathleen LePain, RN, Piedmont Healthcare Athens. Courtesy of Crew Atlanta

Credit: Courtesy of Crew Atlanta

Credit: Courtesy of Crew Atlanta

Kathleen LePain, Piedmont Healthcare Athens

For Kathleen LePain, helping families meet their babies and hold them for the first time is one of her greatest joys as a nurse in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at Piedmont Athens Regional Medical Center.

“We meet families in the biggest crisis of their lives,” said LePain, a nurse in the unit for 38 years. “To walk them through that and be the person who guides them is the best part of what we do.”

LePain takes extra steps to care for the families as well as their babies.

When caring for a tiny infant, she learned that the father was serving in the U.S. military in Kuwait. She put together a special care package for Dad with photos, hand and footprints, and other items so he could have a visual reminder of who was waiting for him at home.

Tasneem Malik, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Courtesy of Crew Atlanta
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Tasneem Malik, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Courtesy of Crew Atlanta

Tasneem Malik, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

When nurse practitioner Tasneem Malik isn’t at her full-time job at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, she volunteers at a free healthcare clinic caring for uninsured patients.

At the Clarkston Community Health Clinic, Malik brings her public health knowledge to her clinical practice, asking probing questions to help patients manage their health. She gets to know her patients well, almost like a social worker, to prevent and treat disease.

“We have to build a relationship,” Malik said. “For some, it’s a struggle for them to get here, so you might not see them again for a year.”

Malik went back to school for her nursing degree as a single mom working full-time at the CDC. She started volunteering at the Clarkston clinic six years ago to gain experience and has stayed, giving at least 10 hours a week.

RN Rochanda Crawford teaches Grady Hospital patients how to live with their newly diagnosed Type 1 or Type 2 diabetes. Courtesy of Crew Atlanta
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RN Rochanda Crawford teaches Grady Hospital patients how to live with their newly diagnosed Type 1 or Type 2 diabetes. Courtesy of Crew Atlanta

Rochanda Crawford, Grady Memorial Hospital

For most of her 34 years in nursing, Rochanda Crawford has been teaching Grady patients how to live with their newly diagnosed Type 1 or Type 2 diabetes.

She greets each patient with a smile, a pleasant demeanor, and patience, said co-worker Pamela Vaughn.

Most patients are still reeling from the news of their diagnoses when they meet Crawford. She knows she has a lot to teach them so they can thrive while dealing with their diabetes.

Crawford’s decision to go into nursing was heavily influenced by her mother, a nurse at Grady for about 25 years.

“Even before I was in nursing school, she actually helped me get jobs as nurses’ aides,” said the married mother of two.

RN Laurie Pazda, Wellstar Kennestone Hospital, works in the Cardiac Intensive Care Unit. Courtesy of Crew Atlanta
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RN Laurie Pazda, Wellstar Kennestone Hospital, works in the Cardiac Intensive Care Unit. Courtesy of Crew Atlanta

Laurie Pazda, Wellstar Kennestone Hospital

Veteran nurse Laurie Pazda says this year “was much crazier” than most years due to the pandemic.

“It’s been an experience, said Pazda, who works in the Cardiac Intensive Care Unit at Kennestone Hospital. “But I believe God’s in control of everything, and that is what keeps me going.”

Co-worker Cherie Baxter said Pazda epitomizes the highly-skilled, talented, and caring nurses who have been at the bedside of COVID-19 patients.

“She embraces these families and their struggles and works tirelessly to be an advocate to get them through some of the worst moments of their lives,” she said.

RN Laura Moss, Wellstar Spalding Regional Hospital, enjoys working in the community where she grew up. Courtesy of Crew Atlanta
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RN Laura Moss, Wellstar Spalding Regional Hospital, enjoys working in the community where she grew up. Courtesy of Crew Atlanta

Laura Moss, Wellstar Spalding Regional Hospital

Laura Moss was always the first person in school to run to help when a classmate fell off the monkey bars or scraped a knee during recess.

“I have just always liked helping people, although I joke it’s because I’m so nosy,” said Moss, a critical care nurse at Wellstar Spalding Regional Hospital in Griffin.

Nurse manager Terry Hosch said Moss has a passion for helping people that runs deep.

“Laura has a dynamic personality and never meets a stranger,” Hosch said. “She is always thinking about her patients and their families.”

Moss has spent her entire life in nearby Jackson so it’s not surprising that she’s grown up with some of her patients.

“I like giving back to the community where I grew up,” she said.

RN Clayton Fowler, Wellstar Kennestone Hospital, works in a unit that cares for some of the hospital's most critically ill patients. Courtesy of Crew Atlanta
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RN Clayton Fowler, Wellstar Kennestone Hospital, works in a unit that cares for some of the hospital's most critically ill patients. Courtesy of Crew Atlanta

Clayton Fowler, Wellstar Kennestone Hospital

The early days of the pandemic were “very scary for a lot of the nurses,” says Clayton Fowler.

Medical professionals didn’t have much knowledge of the virus, but, nonetheless, were committed to helping their COVID-19 patients survive it, he said.

“Once we got our bearings on what COVID is and how we go about treating it, it became easier,” said Fowler, a charge nurse in Wellstar Kennestone Hospital’s very high acuity critical care intensive care unit. “But it was a very, very difficult time.”

Marsha Kadner, Wellstar’s executive director of nursing, said Fowler’s “expertise and leadership shine brightly.”

Fowler, a father of two, said he always wanted to be a nurse and started working toward that goal at age 16, taking a job with a family medical practice.

RN Laura Toops went to college in her 30s, while raising two children. She earned her nursing degree from Kennesaw State University. Courtesy of Crew Atlanta
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RN Laura Toops went to college in her 30s, while raising two children. She earned her nursing degree from Kennesaw State University. Courtesy of Crew Atlanta

Laura Toops, Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta – Egleston

Born and raised in Portland, Oregon, Laura Toops always felt a calling to nursing.

But she didn’t envision becoming a pediatric nurse until, as a nursing student, she spent time at Camp Braveheart, which Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta hosts for its young heart patients.

Today, Toops is a nurse in the cardiac intensive care unit at Children’s at Egleston Hospital.

“I can’t imagine doing anything else,” she said. “It is truly my passion.”

Last year, Toops was on duty the day baby Josephine “Josie” Znoj came to CHOA. Josie was diagnosed before birth with the rare condition Trisomy 18, and lived only four months, the last 1 1/2 at Children’s.

Colleen Znoj, Josie’s mother, said Toops “went above and beyond for our family, undoubtedly inspiring other nurses and helping us keep positive during the darkest days.”

Toops said she copes with the heartache of losing patients such as Josie by going home and loving her own children. It also helps to know that Children’s has some of the most resilient children and families.

Chief Nursing Officer Vicky Hogue, Wellstar Paulding Hospital. Courtesy of Crew Atlanta
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Chief Nursing Officer Vicky Hogue, Wellstar Paulding Hospital. Courtesy of Crew Atlanta

Vicky Hogue, Wellstar Paulding Hospital

Throughout her career, nurses have always turned to colleague Vicky Hogue for advice, as she stays calm and thinks critically in all situations.

That was never more clear than during the coronavirus pandemic. Hogue, Wellstar Paulding Hospital’s chief nursing officer, implemented guidelines to ensure patients would have competent nurses at their bedsides throughout the pandemic.

Before COVID-19 cases surged, she began to train skilled surgical and post-operative nurses to work alongside nurses in the Intensive Care Unit.

Hogue, who will celebrate 41 years with Wellstar in August, was selected for the AJC’s Celebrating Nurses Leadership Award, given annually to an outstanding nurse director.