Shivani Ghoshal, MD
As the wave of Omicron crashed onto hospitals this winter, memories from 2020 came flooding back, along with concomitant emotional fatigue. This month, Currents is especially honored to highlight creative works from two neurocritical care nurses from New York, at a time when many neurologic and medical ICUs are stretched from limited ICU nursing and staff. Here in two brief interviews, we focus on the creativity of these two nurses and the community they’ve grown in response to COVID.
Sharlene Chisholm, NP
Sharlene Chisholm, co-founder of the empowerment group SistahGirlfriendNetwork (SGN), remembers the beginnings of the first wave of COVID well. “COVID – flipped our world upside down. Never felt we could cover enough, beyond the acuity - even from the sheer volume of patients. But it also reminded me how much I really liked people. Contacting families when they weren’t able to come in person, translating what I was seeing at the bedside into ways that were caring but also clear. And it reminded me how much influence and importance we have in ICU healthcare. We are essential to how ICUs are run.”
With increasing patient numbers, Sharlene noticed how difficult it was to keep all her nursing gear in one place. “I was just buying bags off Amazon, but it wasn’t really the practical design I wanted. Every day, along with patient care, I’m juggling pens, my nursing phone, markers to label lines, dry erase markers to update the boards to let patients know what’s going on. And I’ve still got rolls of tape, flushes, alcohol pads, scissors, line caps, and who knows what else."
Sharlene decided to take matters into her own hands and design something for nurses herself. Though she had never designed or marketed a product before, Sharlene created the Essential Belt for nurses and healthcare providers based on her own needs and experience, all while juggling shifts in the neuro-ICU. Within a few months, Sharlene had created a website, secured a vendor, and purchased an inventory of 500 of her Essential Belts. “During that first wave, we all felt like we were unprepared. I wanted to make something that could make us feel a little more confident to tackle the day.”
Her creative work during COVID strengthened Sharlene’s community and friendships. Together, Sharlene and her best friend, a healthcare social worker, created the SistahGirlfriendNetwork. The community group aims to highlight the significance of healthy friendships and to “hold onto the stories of navigating healthcare as black women.”
Sharlene reflects on SGN’s support and the effects it’s had at work in the ongoing COVID era. “We’ve been through a lot. But we are also attuned to each other’s needs better than ever. There’s so much we have to do physically and mentally. And sometimes we’re scared to tell each other how we’re really feeling. But we take the time to listen to each other and give space for each other as we can.”
Sharlene Chisholm (far right) with two other SGN members
Katie Paccione, NP
For Katie Paccione, a neurocritical care nurse for the last four years, introduction to circus art started with a pre-pandemic birthday present to a trapeze class. Working through the different options in aerial acrobatics, she found a connection to aerial hoops, also known as the Lyra. The Lyra is a steel circle suspended from the ceiling, on which a circus artist can perform. The aerial hoop was first used around 120 years ago (by Ceado the Marvel, for those of you looking for a deep dive into circus history) and has been popularized in the last 20 years with its incorporation in Cirque de Soleil.
As studio spaces closed their doors during COVID social-distancing, Katie brought the studio and her acrobatic community home. While working through the New York city COVID pandemic, she installed a Lyra in her apartment to connect back to herself and her aerialist community outside work.
“It’s really the only thing I do for myself, with the stress of the ICU. It’s the creative outlet I use to act out any feelings I’m having that day. I think a lot about work when I’m not there, wondering what I should’ve done, what I shouldn’t have done. Lyra helps me think about what I’m doing at that moment, bringing me back to here and now.”
Beyond working with the lyra and performing as an aerialist, Katie feels stronger for the community lyra has given her. “So much of my life is my work, and my work friends. But it’s nice to step outside that circle and just see where everyone else comes from. It’s not a group of people I would’ve met under any other circumstances.” Beyond the Zoom classes from her home lyra studio, the group continues to create projects together, both in New York City and beyond.
The projects and community give Katie hope and perspective for fellow ICU nurses and healthcare workers in the ongoing COVID era. “I think the hardest part for me is watching my coworkers struggle. When the first wave hit, everything was so cohesive and working together – and seeing that is probably what first got us through. But after, with the dust maybe settling a little – staffing is hard, and it feels like we keep trying to catch up and pull ourselves together. But I don’t want trainees to give up on what we do in the ICU. We need to keep our community strong.”