Alumni In Action: Emma Kvaale ’17 navigates a shift in patient care

The New York City nurse discusses caring for patients amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.

Emma Kvaale ’17 has faced a dramatic shift in responsibilities due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Kvaale, who prior to the pandemic served as a nurse in a cardiac acute care unit, is receiving ICU training due to increasing demand for treatment of COVID-19 patients.

Kvaale has transitioned from caring for four to five patients at a time to training to care for only one or two patients at a time, as they require much closer monitoring. Her job now entails understanding and troubleshooting ventilators and various forms of life support as well as titrating high-risk medications and monitoring labs and vital signs very closely. Kvaale discusses the impact this shift in duties has had on her professional and personal life.

Q: How has the novel coronavirus impacted your day-to-day life and your work?

A: The coronavirus has impacted my work in many ways. I have been going through more intense training to prepare for the ICU. I have had to learn about new equipment and machines. I have also had to completely change my way of thinking. Typically, we put our patients first. So for example, if there was an emergency, I am trained to run into the patient’s room first but now I need to put my own safety first because of COVID. So even in an emergency, I need to make sure I properly and slowly put on my personal protective equipment (PPE) before entering the room. After years of being trained to put your patient first, it is especially hard to think of yourself first during an emergency.

It has also impacted me because I am exposed to COVID every day, which causes constant concerns about my own health.

In terms of my day-to-day life, anything I normally do outside of work is typically nonexistent. In NYC, all restaurants and most public places are closed. All of my friends have left the city so it is very quiet. My life has basically become all about work and since I don’t have much to do during free time, I have been picking up overtime shifts at work.

Q: Have you treated COVID-19 patients?

A: My unit became a COVID ICU but since I was an acute care nurse and not ICU trained, I was temporarily reassigned to an acute COVID floor. This meant I was taking care of four to five COVID patients who were sick enough that they needed to go to the hospital to get oxygen support but they were not sick to the point of needing a ventilator or organ support (though many progressed to that point). The COVID ICUs were more populated and needed more help, so I am now back on my original unit undergoing ICU training.

Q: What have you learned during this pandemic?

A: I have learned that even healthy, young people are not untouchable. I’ve seen a healthy 18-year-old in the COVID ICU as well as a significant number of people in their 30s. It will be really interesting to see the research in 10 years to see what exactly is causing some people to become extremely sick versus those who have mild symptoms or are asymptomatic.

I have also learned how important social distancing and hand washing are during this pandemic.

Q: What is something positive you have witnessed or experienced despite these difficult times?

A: The support that healthcare professionals have received during these times is overwhelming. I always felt that it was such a shame how under-appreciated nurses were and to receive this type of support from friends, family and strangers is incredible. Whether it’s the 7 p.m. cheer in NYC, thank you’s from people on the street or food donations to our hospital, it seriously is what is getting us through these tough times.

The coming together of our team is also incredible. I’ve seen everyone in my unit really step up and work together more than ever. Everyone is picking up overtime shifts and we have all become significantly closer over the past few months.

About this series: The Elon Alumni in Action series explores the stories of university graduates who are doing important and uplifting work as the world faces the COVID-19 pandemic.