The brave face of nursing

Posted on Wed, 12/01/2021 - 11:30am

By Tracy Poyser

Imagine graduating from nursing school in May 2018, eager to begin your dream career, when COVID-19 was not even a blip on the horizon. If you’ve spent time in the hospital as a patient or caregiver in the last two years, you’d be in awe of the dedication and skill of the staff at all levels, especially the nurses. Remember last year when we banged pans and waved lights from our balconies to express our gratitude? Little did we, or newly minted nurses, know then how much of the fight against the pandemic was still ahead.

So, this story is about one very special neighbor of ours – Newsha Khalili, born and raised in Malibu East. When I saw her several months ago, she asked if the Dialogue had ever profiled a nurse – and our committee could not think of a timelier feature. I had taken photos of Newsha in 2014 as a present for her parents, and I thought she could have easily started a career in modeling.

But, Newsha’s path was in the healing profession. She pursued it with a strength and determination that put her front and center as a nurse in a COVID ward at Christ Hospital in April 2020 when the pandemic was exploding across the U.S. She has no use for adjectives like “selfless” or “heroic.” “This is what I signed up for,” she tells me, and that’s been so ever since she got her nursing degree from Loyola University Chicago in May 2018.

She landed her first position in the cardiac unit of Northwestern Memorial Hospital (NMH). “It costs a lot of money to train a newly graduated nurse,” she says, “and NMH gave me my start when the job market for nurses was more than saturated.” Now, nursing staff levels are 20-30% lower, with every major metropolitan hospital seriously short-staffed.

After a year at NMH, Newsha was offered a position at Advocate Christ Hospital & Medical Center (Christ) in Oak Lawn, a 749-bed facility. It’s the only Level I trauma center in the south suburbs capable of providing total care, from prevention through rehabilitation. Newsha wanted the adrenaline rush of a trauma center and the challenge to be fully there for her patients and colleagues. She initially considered the oncology unit but opted to become a “float nurse” at Christ in May 2020 when COVID was at its first peak, working in the cardiac and step-down intensive care units.

I wasn’t sure if I could handle it, but they needed it,” she says. And, she knew she’d gain experience across a broad medical spectrum, including the neurology, trauma and cardiovascular units.

Although Newsha loved her experience at Christ and the critical-thinking skills she gained as a float nurse, she took a full-time position at the University of Illinois (UIC) Hospital in March 2021, with an “as needed” commitment four times a month at Christ Hospital. “Nothing scares me anymore,” she declares. UIC patients are generally not as sick as those at Christ, and Newsha needed a change to build up the energy to pursue her next goal – going back to school next spring for 4½ years to become a doctor of nursing practice (DNP), with a special focus on cardiology.

Newsha had a fascination with health care and the complexity of the human body very early in life. “I had a little stethoscope for my dolls,” she chuckles, “and I played surgeon to save their lives.” So, what prompted her to become a nurse instead of a doctor? “At 19, I had the opportunity to shadow an amazing nurse practitioner, Dr. Jean Berry, at a West Town clinic for people without health care.” Jean asked Newsha why she wanted to be a doctor. “I just want to help people,” Newsha responded. “That’s what a nurse does,” declared Jean. The two have remained close, with Jean proudly pinning Newsha during her graduation ceremony.

Like so many nurses, Newsha found working with ICU COVID-19 patients overwhelming at times and often excruciatingly sad, with many of them in the vulnerable age group of 60-80. Her most difficult moments were when COVID patients didn’t understand why they weren’t doing better. She recalls a woman in her 60s who had been in her care for three months. She received a 100% oxygen supply via a BiPAP (Bilevel Positive Airway Pressure) machine at maximum coverage but couldn’t tolerate the mask anymore. Then her oxygen level dropped to 60% and she was about to be intubated, but she said very firmly, “I’m done.” Newsha had the charge nurse contact the patient’s son to confirm the advance directives and to have a DNR (do not resuscitate) order invoked. Newsha had to remove all life support, and it broke her heart having to tell her patient why she couldn’t go home without sugarcoating the situation. The woman died three days later.

Health care can be very strenuous, and both patients and doctors can be abusive,” she says. And, it’s the nurse’s role to resolve tense situations in the interest of the patient.

How does she handle this emotionally? “We just need to keep going,” she says. That protective toughness is a necessity, and there’s no time to dwell on one case before the next patient is in crisis.

Out of thousands of patients, she remembers one who left her crying very early on the job – her first “code blue” emergency requiring her to start chest compressions on a 70-year-old patient. “It’s so much more brutal than the TV shows. I needed to be so aggressive that I heard the patient’s chest break open, plus I had to explain to the daughter what was happening.” Sadly, the patient didn’t make it. Newsha’s coworkers helped her regain her composure and return to duty the same night, but it took her two days to recover.

In a job that requires compassion and resilience, Newsha’s best friends and supporters have been her parents, Bahman and Mahnaz, who immigrated to the United States in 1991. She’s an only child and is happy living with them in a building where she feels people care for each other.

But, what about her own support system, I asked. Her response: “My go-to support are my nursing school classmates. The three of us went through so much together as students, and survived the toughest three years studying vigorously and attending nursing rotations at multiple hospitals. Now, we have each other’s back because we know how brutal it was working as a new graduate nurse in any hospital.”

To unwind, Newsha enjoys yoga, lifting weights, running on the beach, listening to music or going shopping. “This all helps to clear my mind and just be in the moment,” she explains. “I’ve always taught myself that no matter what I have experienced at work, life goes on, and I have to be centered and enjoy the small things in life … grabbing a hot coffee, trying out new restaurants or even cooking Persian food with my mom.”

So, what should we remember when we or our loved ones are hospitalized? To quote Newsha: “Nurses always want to go above and beyond for their patients because we are your advocate. Some days we are short-staffed, and we’re trying our best to tend to all of our patients, but behind the scenes, a significant number of events can occur in a short amount of time. So we just appreciate patience because we know how important patient care is.”

Thanks, Newsha, for letting us see just a small part of the nursing world through your compassionate eyes.