National Nurses Week: COVID-19 brings Pittsburgh-area nurses to the frontlines

Nurses are oftentimes the unsung heroes


by Ashley Johnson, Courier Staff Writer

With the invasion of coronavirus, also known as COVID-19, various professions have taken to the frontlines to fight this disease as a service to their country, in their own way.

Healthcare workers, especially nurses, are one of the professions that has been thrusted to the forefront.

Nurses have always played an intricate role in the healthcare system. They serve in many capacities—caregivers, educators and advocates, just to name a few. And oftentimes, nurses are there at the beginning of life and at the end.

So, it’s only fitting that the contributions nurses make to their profession and their communities are recognized nationally, with National Nurses Week, which is observed this year from May 6-12.

While they do get a week, they deserve a “Thank You” every day.

Meet Alison Jean-Julien, a 33-year-old Unit Director of Cardiothoracic Surgery and Transplant at UPMC Presbyterian Hospital, who holds several degrees in science, nursing and leadership. She told the New Pittsburgh Courier that taking care of people has always been part of her DNA. It was while in college, and after gaining experience as a caregiver, that she decided to go into the nursing profession.

“I think, ultimately, as a nurse, I like to help promote wellness and reduce health disparities,” Jean-Julien said. “Then, as a manager, in my role, I have a unique opportunity to help not only shape the future of nursing, but also to ensure that there’s good patient outcomes and set high clinical standards within my department and Presby, in general.”
In her role, Jean-Julien, who was only days away from giving birth to her first child at the time of this interview, manages the department that cares for patients in the heart and lung transplant center, and those who are on ventricular assist heart devices.

One of the most rewarding and humbling experiences of her job is that she plays a role in someone getting a second lease on life through receiving a transplant, whether it’s by hiring the right person or providing patients with needed resources. But, as one may know, with any reward comes challenges; for Jean-Julien, hers are not taking everything home with her and getting caught up in the “emotional investment” of the work that she does. She experiences people at their best and worst, especially with people facing death and families having to make difficult decisions.

While she’s making a difference in her current position, Jean-Julien sees herself doing more. Her future goals are to learn how to balance being a new mom and professional, continue to grow within the field of nursing leadership, including executive management, and continue to be an advocate for vulnerable people and help reduce health disparities through the work that she does with the Pittsburgh Black nurses organization.



Like Jean-Julien, Penn Hills resident Channing Richardson, 31, a registered nurse at UPMC Hillman Cancer Center in the Mario Lemieux Center for Blood Cancers, also finds satisfaction knowing that her job is helping someone who is in a vulnerable position in their life.

Richardson, who is responsible for administering chemotherapy, assessing and educating patients, and also serves as a Charge and Flex nurse throughout the week, said: “I think it’s very rewarding knowing that I’m able to help someone when they’re in a vulnerable position. Something as simple as a smile, as simple as treating them kindly can just brighten up someone’s day, especially right now. I work in Oncology and those patients (are) going through it, every single day. They live with this cancer and I just hope that I can make them feel better just by a good smile and doing the best that I can to make them feel comfortable.”

It was at an early age that Richardson, who has been a nurse for seven years, became interested in the profession. Her mom, who also was a nurse, would come home and tell her stories about her day. Then, when Richardson had her daughter at an early age and needed to find a career where she could make good money and advance quickly, she decided to become a nurse.

But to her, this job is more than just about money. She said one has to truly love people to be a nurse.

Also, like Jean-Julien, Richardson notes that the challenging part of her career is dealing with not only individuals who are nearing the end of their lives, but their families. “You empathize with them because I couldn’t imagine losing my mom, my grandma, whoever the loved one is. It really tugs on your heartstrings when you know how that family member is feeling and there’s really nothing that you can do, nothing that you can say.”

But with all the ups and downs, Richardson said, “there’s nothing like nursing.”
While she acknowledges that many people within a medical facility play a significant role, from the janitors to the executives, she said that “nurses are the heartbeat of the healthcare system.”


Like Richardson, West Mifflin’s Devon Morgan, 41, a clinician fellow at UPMC McKeesport’s Behavioral Health Unit, always had a sense that she would have a career in the medical field. “I’ve always had a giving heart, I’ve always taken care of people and I knew that I wanted to be in the health care industry.”

While her path after high school didn’t lead straight to where she is now, through what she said were some wrong turns and “a lot of prayers and tears,” she made it. And she’s received several recognitions for her work.

Morgan, who has been in the nursing profession for four years, said her days consist of various duties, from being a bedside nurse to management. It all just depends on where she’s needed.

What drives Morgan is that she “enjoys taking care of people” and shining her light for others who may not have hope. “(I’m) able to give them a smile, reassurance and be there for (them).”

Along with nurses already in the field, National Nurses Week also recognizes those who want to enter the nursing field. National Student Nurses Day will be observed on May 8.

Rankin resident Donna Durrett, a 21-year-old junior in the nursing program at Community College of Allegheny County’s Boyce Campus, is near completion of her associate’s degree in nursing. She hopes to become an Obstetrics Nurse, but more specifically, a Midwife.
Like some of the previously mentioned nurses, Durrett said she’s wanted to be a nurse since an early age. “I’ve always felt the need to help people, especially pregnant women. I feel bringing life into the world is a special thing.”

While her goal is to become a Midwife, Durrett has discovered a backup plan, through her current work at a nursing home in the dietary department. Although working with older people wasn’t her passion at first, since working at the facility for almost a year, and seeing how nursing homes have been hit with COVID-19, she said it has made her want to help the older population. In fact, when asked if the pandemic has made her second-guess her career choice, she said the virus has made her want to become a nurse even more than before.

“Not only do I want to bring life into the world, but I want to spend the last days in an older person’s life.”

There’s no denying that the fight against COVID-19 has renewed the appreciation for nurses and their sacrifice and dedication. Amongst the nurses interviewed by the Courier, Morgan is the person who is front-and-center when dealing with COVID-19 patients. Like many, she said her greatest concern is working with the unknown, the “invisible enemy,” as COVID-19 is known. Morgan is hoping not to contract the virus, which then could be spread to her family.

For Jean-Julian, COVID-19 has been a bit of a “wake-up call to educate myself and my family, and to make sure that we are doing the right things and following the right guidance, but also getting the right information.”

She went on to say: “As nurses, our role…is being the truth-tellers, because there’s a lot of false information and people are seeing things that might not be factually true, or scientifically true.”



From the Web