YSU Nursing Graduates Combat COVID-19 on the Frontlines 

By Amanda Joerndt
Kelcey Norris

While most of the community is being advised to take social distancing precautions during the coronavirus pandemic, some Youngstown residents have no choice but to show up for work. 

Youngstown State University nursing graduates are taking risks of their own to help provide respiratory care services for those with COVID-19. 

Carly Berlon graduated with a nursing degree in May 2019 and currently works in the COVID-19 intensive care unit at the Cleveland Clinic. 

Berlon said her COVID-19 ICU floor is working with a lot of young and healthy patients, which is different from what she is used to. 

“We’re used to people with a huge past medical history and these people are fairly healthy, which is very scary,” she said. “Really just ventilating them, and we put them on a ventilator.”

Berlon said the turnover rate is fairly high in her facility. 

“We probably have five or six submissions every single day,” she said. “They have to come back if they’re being ruled out or if they’re positive, and only stay with us if they’re positive.” 

The nurses are provided with scrubs, disposable gowns, surgical masks and goggles on a daily basis. 

“The surgical masks are just one-time use per patient, and then we do have our N95 respirators for if we need to use them and those are actually getting resanitized and we’ll use them again,” Berlon said. 

She said she didn’t expect to be on the frontlines of a pandemic this early in her health care career.

“I remember sitting through Wendy Thomas’ class and thinking, ‘I’ll probably never see this. Why do we have to learn about pandemics and why does the 1918 flu matter?’ But amazingly, we’re using it within our first year,” Berlon said.

She said she’s constantly worrying about her loved ones.

“You go to work and you worry about your patients for 12 and a half hours and then come home and on your nights and days off, you’re worried about your family for the rest of the time,” she said. 

Steven Pavlak is a 1980 and 1983 graduate from YSU’s nursing program and currently works as the system manager at Mercy Health.

He is a registered respiratory therapist in Ohio and works with about 80 respiratory therapists, giving them assistance on the frontlines.

“They are involved with mechanical ventilation, the intubation of these patients, meaning we’re putting breathing tubes in them, so they’re literally right in the face of these COVID-19 patients,” Pavlak said.

He said his respiratory therapists practice proper personal protective equipment and “are ready for just about anything” they encounter.

“In my 40 years, I have never seen the intensity of the level of respiratory distress, as far as a disorder,” Pavlak said. “We’re running the most ventilators that we’ve ever run in my career that I’ve ever seen.” 

Pavlak said his facility is in a good position to provide care for the community. 

“Currently, we’re not doing sleep lab procedures so we’re reeducating and redeploying, so we have plenty of staff,” he said. “So that’s really been a blessing in disguise actually.” 

According to Pavlak, his facility is hopeful for a “gentle rise and a gentle drop.”

“I wouldn’t say that we’re in a steep uprise,” he said. “It seems to have plateaued at this point, and we’re very hopeful that it’s going to start to go the other way.”

Brandon Rigelsky, a 2019 YSU nursing graduate, is a licensed nurse at Trumbull Regional Medical Center’s ICU. The reason he became a nurse was to help others and solve problems. 

“COVID-19 has been a great learning experience,” he said. “Almost all of our patients go into renal failure and require dialysis. Many of them need to be paralyzed and pronated for many hours of the day, which requires antiviral meds I have never heard of before this outbreak.”

In the ICU, Rigelsky said changes to routines and practices have been implemented with everyone’s safety in mind. 

“There aren’t rooms you can freely walk in and out of,” he said. “Every single time you go in you must gown up correctly to protect not only yourself but your co-workers and families at home.”

Patients at the Trumbull Regional Medical Center in the ICU are predominantly patients infected with COVID-19. 

“When I first saw COVID, it worried me. I was shaking in the rooms,” Rigelsky said. “Now I don’t worry. I treat every day the same as 6 months ago. I clock in, do the best I can, use my YSU knowledge, report things to physicians, try to provide excellent patient care in the little things.” 

In addition to a solution to the virus, Rigelsky said in the meantime he wants his community to simply be kinder to one another. 

“I want people to quit buying into all the fear,” he said. “There is no more being friendly to people anymore; everyone’s mad. There are far fewer friendly hellos, and everyone looks at each other with suspicion.”

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