A COVID-19 surge is straining Colorado’s medical workers. Reinforcements are on the way.
Victor Hernandez is among a new class of nurses who will take their degrees and dedication to the pandemic’s front lines.
Victor Hernandez was working as a student nurse at Porter Adventist Hospital in Littleton this year when COVID-19 broke out at a nearby senior-care facility.
Infected seniors filled the hospital’s intensive-care unit. Many of those patients were also dealing with various stages of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.
“So many people were intubated; they had to get hourly meds and constant head-to-toe assessments,” Hernandez recalled. “But the nurses there are absolutely top-notch. Even though they’re unbelievably fatigued, they’re brave and taking care of their patients every single day.
“They’re super badasses, you know?”
For Hernandez, a nursing senior at Metropolitan State University of Denver, that experience was one of many that deepened his commitment to a field he described as “applied biology in a humane context.”
In addition to working in the ICU, he’s spent time in general medicine, psychiatric, post-trauma, post-surgery and orthopedics.
And though he’s grateful for the experience, there’s one area in particular that has resonated with him.
“I love the adrenaline that comes with critical care,” Hernandez said. “In those moments where you might want to freeze up, when someone is coding or bleeding out, being in the ICU as part of an integrated team has definitely brought out confidence in me I didn’t know I had.
“I find myself saying, ‘Wow, I can’t believe I’m here right now. This is what I wanted; now I’m going to step up to the plate.’”
Paying it forward
A team approach to health care is an integral part of Hernandez’s success, whether surrounded by trauma doctors and E.R. nurses or a supportive academic network. He credited Mallory Brunel, an assistant professor of nursing, and Professor Steve Rissman in integrative health care for supplying an encyclopedic depth of knowledge and the inspiration to keep him going.
Hernandez said he appreciates MSU Denver’s diverse student body.
“I love how I’ve always felt included since I stepped foot on campus here,” Hernandez said. “It’s a melting pot of cultures. … Especially in nursing, we need more diversity and people who are bilingual. If you can understand your patients’ culture firsthand, that’s invaluable.”
The University’s Health Institute, a collaboration of 10 MSU Denver departments, is working to address equity gaps and increase cultural competency. Research shows that patients receive better care from practitioners with a shared racial or ethnic background. Yet a shortage of health care workers from underrepresented populations has led to a disproportionately low number of medical practitioners available to serve these communities.
And the job opportunities are bountiful. Traveling COVID-19 nurses are fetching upward of $8,000 a week.
Last spring, the Health Institute partnered with Centura Health to create its Centura Scholars program, which provides scholarships, mentoring and career-networking opportunities.
For Hernandez, who is already working in the Centura system, it’s a mission-driven fit that extends to his role as a mentor with MSU Denver’s Brother 2 Brother support initiative for male-identified students of color. He’s working with a first-year student who is interested in nursing, helping to guide him through exams and difficult course material.
Hernandez sees the connection as a way to pay it forward.
“From the beginning of this path, you find yourself saying, ‘I don’t know if I can do this,’” he said. “But I’m here as a reminder that folks aren’t alone in seeing this as a huge goal. Perseverance pays off, and you’ve got someone with you at every step of the way.”
That camaraderie builds trust and, in turn, the confidence of being part of a team you can count on. And it’s what Hernandez relies on every time he puts on his scrubs to head into his calling to care.
“At this point, you’re putting everything you’ve learned throughout your whole career into practice,” he said. “I can’t wait to be on the front lines already. I know there’s risk involved, but I can’t not help these people.
“So let’s go tackle this and save some lives.”