Star Nurses Spotlights: Advocating for children, sharing mission to care for our patients and more
The Washington Post in conjunction with the American Nurses Association would like to shine a light on our 2021 Star Nurses. Nominated by patients and peers, and then selected from among hundreds of nominees, these women and men, working on the front lines of health care in D.C., Maryland and Virginia, represent the epitome of skill, professionalism and care. As a part of the recognition of the 2021 Star Nurses we will spotlight nurses 3 days per week leading up to the virtual ceremony where six Nightingale Award winners will be announced on May 26th.
Capt. Ljuca Belsito – U.S. Public Health Service
RN, MSN, Board Certified Case Manager
“I am a dynamic personality,” says Ljuca, “and a competitive powerlifter and Olympic champion. I live the healthy lifestyle and patients notice that. I also speak honestly with them, no matter the age. I try to teach, spend the time listening and explaining things to patients.
“Teaching patients and families is so important at a time when they may not understand what is happening or why,” she continues. “Nursing does involve a lot of tasks; however, we must never lose the human touch and capacity to care with empathy.”
She has always wanted to help people who were injured, Ljuca says, and teach how to live healthy lives and learn how to use fitness to do that. She was in school to become a health education teacher, and double-majored in the sciences to then complete her nursing degree.
“My first role in nursing was as a candy striper!” Ljuca recalls. When she completed nursing school she went into neonatal care.
“I had so many opportunities and experiences. I had leadership roles in both the healthy newborn unit and NICU. I was supervisor of sterile central supply and materials management, which allowed me to participate in building and setting up a bone marrow transplant unit, an ambulatory surgical center and a 250-bed nursing home. I was one of eight nurses who helped start a high-tech, home-care agency in the early ’90s, and learned a lot about home care, oncology, hospice, pain management, caring for adults and pediatric patients in the community. We also cared for many HIV patients at home at that time.”
Ljuca, who lives in Clarksburg, Md., has degrees from Molloy College and Adelphi University in New York. She was a civilian nurse for 21 years before joining the U.S. Public Health Service.
“Since going active-duty in 2001,” she says, “I have used all of my nursing clinical and leadership experience in many different roles. Serving in the USPHS has given me opportunities to serve the underserved in our country, deploy to many national disasters” and serve in leadership roles of response teams both domestically and abroad.
Ljuka is in USPHS’s Commissioned Corps, an all-officer corps of approximately 6,500. “It has afforded me more opportunity and experiences in my career than I could have ever imagined.” The stated mission of USPHS is to protect, promote and advance the health of the nation, and has been deployed widely during the pandemic.
“I have never looked back.”
Theresa Schultz – Children’s National Hospital
RN, MSN, MBA, NEA-BC
Theresa has dedicated her career to the care of children, first as a registered respiratory therapist and then as a nurse.
While working as the PICU clinical specialist for respiratory care and as an extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) specialist collaboratively with PICU nurses, she found herself inspired by those colleagues.
“My first role as a nurse was in the PICU at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia,” Theresa recalls, “side by side with the very nurses who inspired me to go back to nursing school. As much as I had loved being a cardio-pulmonary expert, my strong calling to care for critically ill children in a more holistic way was actualized.”
Caring for patients, families and staff through a trauma-informed lens “is part of every experience, Theresa says. “Recognizing that many individuals have a history of trauma, and acknowledging that such lifetime adversity contributes to poor health outcomes and reduced life expectancy, is critical. The imperative for me is to integrate this knowledge into every element of service: policies, practices, procedures and care. My personal touch is, with every encounter, to approach others as a source of comfort instead of control, and in doing so, I can make a difference.”
For Theresa, who lives in Jenkintown, Pa., and studied at Loyola University, the best part of her role is in advocating for children, families and staff, “while serving the most vulnerable. In addition, I make it my priority to support each team member to advocate in these same ways.”
In a climate of dwindling resources, the 11-year nursing veteran points out that “Working with internal, external, and community partners to advance the health and well-being of children with emergency psychiatric and behavioral management care needs is a big challenge, to say the least.”
She remains undaunted. “By making important community connections I have found that our collective expertise and strength makes things happen for the children and families we serve.”
Alexa Evans – Sibley Memorial Hospital-Johns Hopkins Medicine
MSN, RN, OCN
“I think I was always destined to be in health care,” says Alexa, a nurse with eight years in the profession. “From a young age I was drawn to injured or sick people. I just wanted to help.”
Alexa, who lives in Sterling, Va., has degrees from Arizona State University and Grand Canyon University.
What drew her to nursing was her “Oma,” who was diagnosed with breast cancer when Alexa was in high school. “I remember her referring to her nurses as angels. They cared for her in a way that made her feel safe and protected. When she passed away, I knew I also wanted to be someone’s angel during their most challenging time. I treat my patients like I would have liked my Oma to be treated. She is my daily inspiration to go to work and be the best possible nurse.”
Alexa’s first role in nursing, in fact, was as a bedside nurse working on a surgical-oncology unit in Sun City, Ariz.
“I love being an oncology nurse,” she says. “Oncology is a unique nursing specialty that has its challenges but is incredibly rewarding. Every day I am reminded just how special each moment in life truly is.
“Hands down,” Alexa continues, “the most difficult aspect of my job is when a patient passes away. As an oncology nurse, you build really strong bonds with your patients. There are some patients that I see more regularly than my family, and over time you really learn so much about each other. Losing patients is heartbreaking.”
Still, Alexa adds, “It is important that I show up to work every day with a smile. I think patients appreciate a warm smile and a positive attitude. I strive to make sure I bring both with me when I am at work.”
When not at work, one thing Alexa does not do is watch medical TV dramas. “I find myself critiquing everything. ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ used to be a favorite show of mine before I became a nurse,” she says, “but now I know too much.”
Rosslynn Wooden – Inova Lorton Healthplex
Rosslynn loves what she does as a nurse. “I always try to remember this is someone’s mother, father, sister, brother, daughter, son, child,” she says of the patients in her care. “Every life is worthy to be cared for.”
It was her mother who inspired her to become a nurse. “She is a beautiful human being inside and out. She devoted her life to caring for others.”
Rosslynn has been a nurse for 26 years. She studied at Broome Community College in New York. She now lives in Woodbridge, Va.
“Nursing is a blessing,” she says. “Being able to share the best days and worst days with someone” is the best part of her role as a nurse, as is “praying that I helped to make a difference.”
Losing a patient is the most challenging part of the job,” Rosslynn says, “because your heart breaks, too.”
She professes that love, smiles and laughter are contagious. “Feel free to share them as often as possible,” she recommends.
Sara Noble – Virginia Department of Health
“As with any nursing job,” Sara says, “public health comes with the challenges of trying to do so much with limited resources.” She thinks the pandemic has both resolved some of this—albeit temporarily by highlighting the shortages—but has also made it worse.
“We have done some irreparable harm to those that work in health care by making health and safety political,” she argues, “and by putting those we depend on the most in harm’s way without the tools they need.” She points out this has resulted in burnout and nurses leaving the field, “and not at all to be forgotten, those that are no longer with us or able to work because of illness.”
Sara’s first role in nursing was as a licensed practical nurse in hemodialysis. She studied nursing at Western Governors University and has been a nurse for 21 years.
“I had no idea what I wanted to do,” she says thinking back. “I always had a love of learning and science, so when I happened upon nursing I realized that there was an endless realm of not just learning and science, but fulfillment, human connections and personal growth opportunities.”
Sara, who lives in Richmond, tries to take a little time every day to do something for herself. “You can't serve others with an empty plate,” as she puts it.
We could all use such mindfulness, she continues. “More quiet, less noise. We spend so much time fighting distractions, physical noise, emotional noise, digital noise. Find some silence and just...be,” she suggests. “Clear your head, your lungs, your calendar, and just be.”
Vicki Freedenberg – Children’s National Hospital
After a number of years in adult cardiology, Vicki had a son who was born with a serious heart defect. “After he had a couple of surgeries at Children’s National,” she recalls, “I knew I wanted to be in the pediatric cardiology world, and at Children’s National. The experience of being a nurse and a parent in this field brings a unique perspective to both me and my patients.”
Pediatric cardiology, Vicki says, allows her “the great honor of being able to follow many of my patients for years and decades. In some cases,” she adds, “I follow children whose parents I followed when they were kids.
“In pediatrics,” she continues, “you really take care of the whole family, and there is a sense of trust and a bond that occurs over time. You become part of the family, in a sense, and that is so fulfilling.”
She speaks highly of another family: the team at Children’s National. “It is such a special and unique place,” she says. “Everyone is on a shared mission to care for our patients and families, and there is tremendous support for the staff as well. I work with the best team I could imagine. With much support, I have been able to expand my role as both a clinician and researcher to bring in mind-body intervention programs to both the staff and the patients. It has been very exciting to be able to have an impact in helping people of all ages find positive ways to decrease their stress.”
Vicki, who lives in Olney, Md., and has earned three degrees from the University of Maryland, has been a nurse for 40 years. She describes herself as an outgoing and optimistic person, even during very challenging times.
The past year of pandemic “has been a very challenging year for everyone,” she acknowledges. “The anxiety level of patients and staff has increased, and we have had to find creative ways of caring for them and for each other. As with every challenge, there is an opportunity, and as the year has progressed, we are finding more ways to meet these needs.
“Nurses are so vital and critical in problem solving,” Vicki adds. “We inherently look at the whole person and family and see the big picture of people’s lives. It’s hard to separate our emotions from difficult situations, because we truly care.
“And while this can make us exhausted, it is also our superpower.”
Helen Stevens – Inova Lorton Healthplex
MSN, RN, CEN
Like most nurses, Helen wanted to make a difference for others. Nursing was her second career with that motivation.
“My profession prior to nursing also made a difference in many young lives,” she relates. “I owned a horse business and riding school.”
She gave up the reins, however, and earned degrees at Northern Virginia Community College and Western Governors University. Her first role in nursing was on an acute pulmonary rehab unit at Virginia Hospital Center.
Helen has now been a nurse for 15 years. She lives in Virginia. She says she finds the best part of nursing to be “helping others reach their goals in health, career, education.” Not so different from teaching riding.
That could also be said about the most challenging aspect of nursing. “No matter what time it is, pandemic or not,” Helen says, “how to maintain resilience is always the most challenging component.”
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