Entering the healthcare frontlines

Recent SF State Nursing graduates enter the work field in an unimaginable way


Illustration by Erica Gray

A family walked into Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford to care for their one-month-old newborn, who had recently tested positive for COVID-19. As Joanna Stephenson, a nurse of only six months, cared for the baby she noticed the mother was quite distressed as she was sobbing. After Stephenson asked what was wrong, the mother explained that she felt like she had done everything correctly to keep her child from contracting the virus. The mother had brought her baby home immediately after giving birth, allowed no visitors in their home and didn’t leave the house unless absolutely necessary. She took her baby out for a quick trip to the grocery store one time, which was when the baby was exposed to coronavirus. Stephenspon recalls how the mother cried about her worries, and how she tried her very best to keep her baby healthy.

“It made me feel kind of surprised and helpless,” Stephenson said. “This really stuck out to me because she did everything she was supposed to do, but the baby still caught it.” 

Stephenson had recently graduated from SF State’s nursing program and did not imagine entering the workforce amid a global pandemic. Fellow nursing graduates, such as Stephenson, envisioned transitioning from student to a professional under different circumstances. 

Nurses have experienced an increase in mental health issues since COVID-19 swept across the globe in March, but nurses who have entered the field amid the pandemic experienced an even more intense feeling of worry and helplessness during their first months of practicing.

Stephenson explained that isolating herself, as a precaution to keep her loved ones safe and healthy, has had a negative affect on her emotional well-being. 

“My expectations towards being a nurse before COVID-19 was that I would have a lot more support than I do now,” Stephenson said. “Just in terms of seeing family or friends, but with COVID-19 I’m isolating myself. It definitely has affected my mental health.”

Chelsea Jensen recently graduated from SF State’s nursing program and started practicing at St. Joseph Hospital in Eureka, California in January. Jensen explained that some of her worries revolve around patients with mental health issues resulting from reactions to shelter-in-place orders.  

“We used to have two or three suicidal people come into the hospital a day,” Jensen said. “Now with COVID-19, and sheltering in place and everyone being isolated, that number has gone up to about 15-20 suicidal people being admitted a night.”

Jensen explained that because of coronavirus, social distancing and self-isolation, many mental health cases surged at St. Joseph’s. 

“The psychology facilities are completely full,” Jensen said.

Jensen also shared about the mental state she observed of her coworkers, and how as a group they are responding to the crises. 

“People cry at work,” Jensen said. “We started praying more because of patients.”  

Jensen explained that finding ways to cope in her field is really important, even when there isn’t a pandemic sweeping the globe. 

“You need to have a lot of coping mechanisms as a nurse,” Jensen said. “The pandemic can exacerbate the need to cope.” 

Selena Hudson graduated from SF State’s master’s program in nursing in 2018, and started working as a public health nurse practitioner last March. Hudson currently tests individuals for the virus and expressed that her mental health issues stem from her worries about people not wearing masks and spreading the virus. 

“My concern has been over people masking up. Will they protect their community? It’s hard with COVID-19, because half the time people show no symptoms,” Hudson said. “Or people who do become symptomatic are infectious for a couple days before symptoms are apparent. We need people to wear masks so we can make it past this pandemic safely.”

Although new nurses are under a lot of pressure and stress during the pandemic for many reasons, nurses who have been in the field for a much longer period of time are able to offer them support and advice. 

Stephenson explained that nurses with more experience at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford offer her advice to help cope. 

“My mentor always tells me to take it one day at a time,” Stephenson said. 

Elizabeth Galzerano has been a nurse practitioner at Westchester Medical Center in New York for 23 years. Galzerano explained that watching people pass away from COVID-19 in isolation affected her mental health the most. Observing patients dying from the disease without their families by their side contributed to Galzerano’s feeling of depression. It’s also what had her crying at her workspace. Galzerano explained that the only form of communication patients with COVID-19 had with their families were over video chat, and with nurses present. 

“The patients that I had that could not have visitors, I was crying every single time I FaceTimed them to their families,” Galzerano said. “It was extremely devastating because it’s just so sad to have a patient there who’s dying, and the family members can’t be with them.”

Galzerano spoke about nurses who entered the workforce during the pandemic and how they started practicing during an “awful time.” She explained that the world of nursing before the pandemic was much different than nursing in the present day. Usually, nurses care for their patients without too much worry about how illnesses can affect them and their loved ones.

Galzerano reflected on a time during the pandemic when the number of cases were extremely high. 

“We [nurses] were trying to survive ourselves. We were all trying to make sure we all stayed healthy,” Galzerano said. “Nursing usually isn’t like that.” 

Galzerano also offered advice to nurses who entered the field during the middle of the pandemic.

“Understand that things will get better, it won’t always be like this,” Galzerano said. “You will eventually get the proper training that you deserve.”