Read this article as it initially appeared on May 26, 2020 on ROI-NJ.
For the last two months, the graduates of New Jersey’s vocational and technical high schools have been on the front lines in the battle against COVID-19, saluted by their communities as health care heroes.
They are doctors, nurses, physicians’ assistants, medical technicians, information technology specialists and emergency medical technicians, working in New Jersey, and in communities across the nation.
“We’re proud of our graduates who have taken their passion for health care in high school and are now on the front lines helping save lives during this pandemic,” said Kelly Harmon, the director of curriculum and instruction at Monmouth County Vocational School District. “All of these students got their start at a vocational high school and are now making a difference.”
Many of these graduates credit their high school career and technical education experience with igniting their passion for a health care career.
When the coronavirus hit, Andy J. Reyes-Santos, a 2010 graduate of Hudson County High Tech High School, was working as a pediatric resident at Hackensack University Medical Center. Because of the medical emergency, the hospital redeployed him to work with adult patients with COVID-19 as well as pediatric patients.
One day, while monitoring a pediatric transplant patient with COVID-19, he remembers hearing a commotion in another room across the hall. A young man in his early 20s who had been diagnosed the day before with both cancer and COVID-19 was crashing.
“People were screaming, ‘Can we get some help here?’” Reyes-Santos recalled. “By the time I realized what was happening, there were already three senior doctors in the room with at least six nurses helping the young man fight for his life, because he still had some electrical activity in his heart.”
Reyes-Santos said he could see the young man’s mother walking down the hallway to his room, oblivious to what was happening.
“The minute she saw close to 10 people outside her son’s room, she broke down in tears and let out screams in Spanish that shook the hospital from its foundation — the screams of a mother losing her son,” Reyes-Santos said. “No matter how much I tried to comfort her, it didn’t change the fact that her son lost his life that day. He was a young man who just a few short weeks before was living his life at home with few concerns besides what he was going to have for dinner.”
The patient he was monitoring ended up recovering and walking out of the hospital.
“This experience sums up daily life on the front lines,” Reyes-Santos said. “You never know what is going to happen. You try your best. Sometimes, things go south very quickly and, sometimes, they go well. All we can do is show up to work and hope we are making a difference.”
Sheena Seijo, who attended Cumberland County Technical Education Center’s licensed practical nurse program as an adult, has been making a difference working at Inspira Medical Center, DaVita Dialysis Center and Salem Medical Center on the COVID-19 units.
“It’s tough,” Seijo said. “Many patients are without their families during this time. These patients require a lot of care. We have to balance exposure with care. I’m gowned and masked 90% of my shift. I love it and hate it. Sometimes I am the last face or voice they hear before they pass away.”
Seijo credits her time at CCTEC with giving her a base for continued learning. After completing the program at CCTEC, she went on to get her RN and BSN and is currently working toward her master’s degree as a family nurse practitioner.
“I was very supported along the way, and going to that school helped me land jobs based on the reputation,” Seijo said, who had lost a job before attending CCTEC. “My instructors were amazing and believed in me. They made me want to learn and took the time to make sure I was comfortable and able to understand.”
Ashley McIntyre, who graduated from Gloucester County Institute of Technology in 2006, was on maternity leave when the pandemic struck. She decided to return to her job as a nurse at the Hospital of University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.
“These patients needed to be cared for,” McIntyre said. “That is what is rewarding. I get to be the person in the room with my critically ill patient when their families cannot be present.”
McIntyre said she has helped patients use FaceTime so family members could at least be present virtually when their loved one wasn’t going to survive, as well as when a patient has come off a ventilator and began breathing on their own.
“If I think about all the reasons to be scared and stressed, it is very overwhelming,” McIntyre said. “Instead I think of the rewarding things. The reasons I became a nurse — that is what keeps me going during these times. That and my son — I get to tell him his momma fought a pandemic while coming home and nursing him.”
McIntyre said her experience at GCIT instilled the teamwork and leadership skills she uses in her work. During high school, she was captain of her softball team all four years and was involved in many activities.
“I always had a sense of unity and pride when it came to high school,” she said. “I find those same emotions in nursing, especially during times like these.”
Not all of the health care program alumni are working in clinical care, but their work is no less critical to ensuring patients’ well-being.
Krista Melo, who graduated from AAHS in 2003, is working as a health informatics software analyst at Duke Health in North Carolina.
“I and everyone on my team have been working extra hours and longer days to push through an application build that will support the work being performed by our frontline health care workers,” Melo said.
Melo said she works on building new orders for COVID-19 labs, increasing tools and access for providers within telemedicine visits, updating tools that identify resource gaps for patients to support those that are financially or emotionally impacted by the crisis, and creating new departments specifically created to triage patients.
“We’re working hand in hand with our physician champions to prioritize any COVID-related build,” Melo said. “We want to be ready for what’s coming around the corner.”