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Frontline Hero: Michelle Shepeluk

Headshots of Michelle Shepeluk, at home and in COVID-19 gear

Early in life, Michelle made two discoveries. The first was that she was drawn to helping people in difficult situations, hoping to ease their suffering. The second was that she was intrigued by the human body and enjoyed studying anatomy and physiology. Combined, these two passions led her to a career in nursing. Today she’s a registered nurse in the critical care unit at Riverside Walter Reed Hospital, where she’s been since 2005.

A typical workday for Michelle begins at 7 a.m. After taking patient assignments and completing a morning assessment, she and the team at large have a plan of care meeting. From there, it’s providing meals, helping with eating and bathing, reassessing every patient every 4 hours, then handing off her responsibilities at 7 p.m. to the next shift.

During the pandemic, the hospital understandably got a lot busier and patients were a lot sicker. In general, Michelle works about 72 hours every two weeks, but during the height of the pandemic, she took on extra shifts. During one particularly busy season, she worked as many as 100 hours every two weeks. As cases have begun to decrease, she is back to normal hours.

The protective measures they’ve put in place, including being garbed from head to toe, have made it more difficult to communicate and perform group care together. While before they could enter and exit patient rooms without much thought, now the nurses plan everything in advance before going into rooms. It has helped with efficiency, as has aid from other units like the Operating Room or Post Anesthesia Care Unit, who provide extra hands.

Though the community her hospital is in has an older population, Michelle has seen patients from all walks of life over the past several months, an indication that the virus has affected much of society. Still, Michelle's day-to-day tasks are pretty similar, but at a higher volume. In addition, the hospital’s no-visitors policy means nurses have added coordinating video calls with families to their lists of to-dos.

Much of what comes with being a nurse during a pandemic has proved challenging, but Michelle has been learning through it all. “I always had a thirst for knowledge,”she said.

From a nurse’s aide, she became a Licensed Practical Nurse, then Critical Care Registered Nurse, all while at Riverside. Growing up, it was her mother and stepfather who inspired her work ethic through their own. It was their motivation that fueled her through college and nursing school. And to pay her way through nursing school, Michelle worked full-time.

Throughout the pandemic, she found herself following industry news and practices, reading evidence-based findings, and sharing what she learned with her team. The team would then discuss if and how they could incorporate those findings into the care they provided their patients

“I always want to be caring, exercise empathy and be an emotional support for patients and families,” she said.

Michelle’s career is her calling, but it still takes a lot out of her. “The hardest thing hands down is families not being able to see loved ones,” she said. “They cry to you on the phone. It’s heart-wrenching.”

She said while having empathy for patients and families is critical for nurses, it does take an emotional toll. To relieve stress, she enjoys baking, sewing, and spending time with her husband and dog. As an avid reader, she has been opting for fiction novels for “something else out of this reality.”

It’s also customary in her family to gather for each member’s birthday and holidays, but they avoided doing so over the past year to help stop the spread.

“I’ve missed spending time with friends and family, being able to hug people and be around them, having get-togethers—things you take for granted,” she said.

She added that once cases drop to manageable amounts and there are less severe cases, life will begin getting back to normal.

“Patients have been more sick than any I’ve taken care of in my career,” she said. I’m hoping that the vaccine will help cut down on the severity and the spread will slow.”

Though social distancing and wearing a mask are aninconvenience for most, Michelle said it’s about protecting your fellow man and looking out for each other. That’s what she said her team at Riverside has done over the last several months.

“Everyone has given a 100% effort,” she said. “Together, we have done some incredible work and I am proud to be a part.”

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