Focus on patients led alumna to nursing

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A turning point came in Hannah Miller's senior year when she became a pre-health adviser at the university’s career center, where she learned about all the different paths in health care. 

In the midst of the COVID–19 pandemic when all life has been upended, a UC Santa Cruz alumna and nurse is finding herself in the strange position of not having much work.

Hannah Miller, a registered nurse at Good Samaritan Hospital in San Jose, said she has only been working 12–16 hours a week instead of her usual 36 because the hospital census is so low right now. Miller’s home unit is typically full of patients who have just gotten hip and knee replacements done. Like most hospitals, Good Samaritan has canceled all elective procedures. In light of the COVID–19 pandemic, the surgical units, including hers, were closed in order to accommodate an anticipated surge of coronavirus patients. However, that surge has not yet come. In addition, people who would normally go to the emergency room are staying away because some have lost their jobs and don’t have health insurance, while others are afraid of catching COVID–19.

Fortunately, her hospital has implemented “pandemic pay” so she gets 70 percent of her usual salary for every dropped hour. “If I wasn’t getting that, I would be in a tricky position,” she said. Miller feels incredibly grateful to be receiving some financial support during this uncertain time, knowing that other nurses throughout the country have been furloughed and have had to collect unemployment.

Since her unit closed in March, Miller has been floated to other units as needed. She worked on the fifth floor, which was converted into one of the COVID–19 units, almost every shift for three weeks straight a month ago. She said there were between seven and 15 patients on the unit with capacity for 20 during that time.

The patients Miller cared for were mostly stable because those with more serious cases were sent to the intensive care unit. Many patients weren’t able to be discharged and stayed in the hospital longer than they needed to because they couldn’t take care of themselves at home, they had family at home they were worried about infecting, or they lived in a skilled nursing facility that wouldn’t take them back until they tested negative for COVID–19. This created a bottleneck effect that faster testing seemed to alleviate.

The patients in the COVID unit are very lonely as no visitors are allowed, Miller said. Some wanted to hear about her life, while others just wanted someone to talk to or to hold their hand.

“The human aspect of nursing is something you don’t hear about often,” said Miller, who decided to pursue a career in nursing after discovering that nurses get to spend an entire shift caring for patients, while doctors typically only spend a few minutes with each patient.

Raised in Atlanta, but living in the Bay Area for more than a decade, she always knew she wanted to work in the medical field but wasn’t sure if she wanted to be a nurse or a physician. She settled on attending UC Santa Cruz and decided to take prerequisites for both pre-med and nursing while pursuing a bachelor’s degree in Molecular, Cell, and Developmental Biology.

A turning point came in her senior year when she became a pre-health adviser at the university’s career center. “That year was a huge eye opener for me to understand all the different paths in healthcare,” she said. “I had all the options at my fingertips.”

She decided nursing was the best fit because she wanted to focus on preventative care and health education. After graduating from UCSC in 2016, she was accepted into the Accelerated Bachelor of Science in Nursing program at Samuel Merritt University in Oakland, a special nursing program designed for students that had already received a bachelor’s degree in another field. She graduated in 2018.

She is appreciative of how grateful people have been for nurses since the pandemic. Several local businesses have donated free meals for hospital staff, and there has been a lot of public support and appreciation from the community. “Since no visitors are allowed, I’ve been getting a lot of phone calls asking for updates on their loved ones. Family members are so thankful for our hard work and dedication,” said Miller, who feels that she is just doing the same job she’s always done–caring for patients when they are at their most vulnerable, despite the risks nurses face when working with patients that have infectious diseases.

Her work remains challenging as nothing in the hospital is predictable. “Every single day I am wondering what is the new change of the day,” Miller said. “The constant changes regarding staffing, units opening and closing, and how we use/re-use (personal protective equipment) are keeping us on edge. But I know I’m lucky to work at a hospital that does have enough PPE for us because we are working hard to conserve it as much as possible.”

Miller is pleased with how the state has reacted to the pandemic.

“We’re doing something right in California to be keeping our numbers so low,” said Miller. “We’ve been able to successfully flatten the curve by following the shelter in place guidelines, and I think if we keep up the good work and are careful about how we re-open everything, we’re going to be okay.”