Shannon Burkett is a registered nurse who works in Maternal Child Health at Mount Sinai in New York and was nominated for her tireless work and sacrifice in our #CleoNominateaNurse campaign. Something of an anomaly in the medical world, Shannon is a trained actor and writer who has performed on- and off-Broadway and provided voice-over for TV shows Blue Bloods and The Good Fight. It was the diagnosis of lead poisoning of her baby son Cooper, now 12 (she is also mom to Alice, 18, and Summer, 10), followed by her own battle with breast cancer that led Shannon to pursue a career in nursing. Here Shannon shares her journey working as a nurse in the COVID-19 epicenter.
“My son was diagnosed with lead poisoning at a routine 9-month checkup, which we thought had to be a mistake. It turned out he’d contracted it after our apartment became contaminated by nearby construction. That’s when I decided I could no longer stomach what it takes to stay in the acting business, continually putting myself out there and fighting for auditions when now I was fighting for my kid.
My journey into nursing took ten years. I am actually from a medical family, as my dad is a doctor, and my grandma and aunt are both nurses. To be honest, I have always been kind of closeted science geek. I studied drama at NYU, but I have always loved math, science, and chemistry. When my son was sick, I took classes in anatomy and physiology to help me understand what was happening to him and the part of his brain that had been damaged. Learning about plasticity and hematology helped me understand how his blood and respiratory system had been affected. I enrolled in a nursing program at BMCC in 2011, but just when I was about to start, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I took two years off to seek treatment and finally started in 2013, graduated with my associates in 2015, and with my BSN from Hunter College in 2016.
I finally got a job in nursing in January of 2019, joining the neuroscience unit at Mount Sinai before being transferred to the Mother and Baby unit in February 2020, just as COVID-19 began to hit. I felt guilty transferring as so many of my colleagues were working exclusively on COVID units. I did offer to go back to Med-Surg [Medical-Surgical nursing] but ended up staying in Mother and Baby, though I am always talking to and supporting colleagues in ICU and COVID-19 units.
Right now, I am working 12.5-hour shifts. I get up at 4:30 a.m. to do some physical exercise and mentally prepare, as you don’t know what you are walking into. I arrive at the hospital at 6:30 a.m. for a 7:00 a.m. start to prepare, get dressed in all my PPE, and look up my patient records so I can assess them and work out what they need.
Working with mothers and babies was always my passion. I’m a baby addict and would have had 20 if I could have. I am also a certified lactation consultant. You are not occluded from COVID as mommies get coronavirus and they are frightened. Everyone gets tested for COVID when they arrive at the hospital, and many moms are asymptomatic. If they test positive, they are moved to a different floor. It’s been hard for new mothers as the protocol has understandingly been evolving; initially, they couldn’t have a support person, and now they can have one support person.
I give 120-percent of my energy into supporting new mommies and their babies who are going through such a big transition in the middle of a global health crisis. This is actually where my acting comes into play. I know when I walk into a room, how to read the scene and the emotion. And when I see eyes wide with anxiety and fear, I can tell who needs more caretaking and emotional support. That’s been one of the most heartbreaking things, as every new mother deserves to have this beautiful time with their baby in their little universe without fear.
One day I hope to work internationally — perhaps with the United Nations — and go to places where the maternal-child death rate is high. Alarmingly, the child death rate is quite high in the US, and there are significant discrepancies within the African-American community. I would like to help lower that inequity.
In terms of my safety, we do have to ration PPE during COVID. Thankfully I’ve had an N95 mask every day, but we used to throw it out after every use, and that is not mandated anymore. I do feel health care workers have been let down on a federal level. I also feel they should reframe the way they structure nursing programs — every nurse should have a real residency program, just like doctors do. We receive a couple of months of training, if that, which is paid for by the individual hospitals, but I believe all nurses should receive a year-long residency funded by the state and the federal government. After all, nurses, especially those in the ICU, are highly skilled and work just as hard as doctors do.
Thankfully, we are seeing a decline in the number of COVID tests coming back positive, and analyses are coming back faster. Honestly, personally speaking, the most challenging part of all of this is I haven’t been able to be there for my kids much, especially to help with their distance learning. So right now, I feel like a bad mom, although my husband Andy has been incredibly supportive. I have been most worried about my son, given his medical history and the fact he has viral-induced asthma, so we take precautions. We have a routine where when I come home from work, I go straight to the laundry in my building, strip down to my underwear, and put all of my clothing into the washing machine. I put signs up on the machine to let the other residents know I am a nurse and using this machine. Then I walk down the hallway to my apartment almost naked.
Running has been a savior for me. I had a colleague who passed away from COVID, which was very difficult, and so I just ran to help me cope emotionally and physically. Some friends have also been utterly amazing, paying for Ubers to get me to and from work. I’m glad Governor Cuomo has fixed the subway situation by having them cleaned and sanitized every night. I have lived in New York since 1993, and I’ve been afraid on the subway before, but I’ve never been afraid of the subway. Being bombarded by all the dangers at work is bad enough without having to worry about getting sick on the subway.
Like with any crisis, it does bring out people’s true colors, and it’s been beautiful to see how healthcare workers have stepped up. They are always amazing, but this is next level. We are usually working at 7:00 p.m., but we try to open a window. It’s so touching to see people waiting outside and cheering with all their hearts. It has made me cry. I’ve gotten applause as an actress, but this is different. Nursing is very isolating, and it’s a lot of weight to carry, so knowing everyone is with you does help make it feel a little less heavy and drowns out the negative noise.
One night as I was leaving work, I got into the car, and the city looked the most beautiful it ever had. The setting sun reflected gold across the colors of the sky, and I had a little moment where I just felt so much courage, love, and heroism. I just knew then that we were gonna survive.
In honor of International Nurses Day, we asked our Cleo Community to nominate a nurse they love to receive Cleo pampering, skin care, and wellness products (with enough to share with their fellow front-line colleagues). We were touched by the entries, and thank everyone who shared their stories and nominated their heroes. Here are a few:
Holly Beseke is a Registered Nurse in Med-Surg ICU at Abbott Northwestern Hospital - Allina Health, MN
“Currently, my ICU has been turned into the designated COVID-19 ICU at our hospital. We have changed our unit around completely to accommodate for these patients and are wearing PPE 24/7 except for water and bathroom breaks. It’s taken a toll on our skin, and we’re all exhausted.”
Melissa Riley RN, BSN, is an Emergency Room Nurse at HCA Midwest Healthcare, KA
“My role is always challenging since you never know what is going to come through the doors of the ER! It has been even more challenging with COVID-19. I constantly make sure I have proper PPE on, no matter what the complaint is, to try to keep myself and my other patients as safe as possible. One of the hardest things during this time is when people die. It has been extremely sad having to deliver that news over the phone. I also have not seen my family since the end of February. Luckily, we have technology and I have been able to video chat, etc.! Something that has continued to lift my spirits during this time is every company and person thanking me. It truly has been amazing the amount of love and support I have been given. Thank you to everyone!”
Jenny Tsai is a Perioperative RN at the University of Kansas Medical Center, KA
“Being a nurse at the hospital has been a very uncertain time. There have been daily changes when it comes to protocols/rules. I've been taking care of patients going through surgery and recovering them from anesthesia. With COVID, we have to be extra cautious on the amount of PPEwe are using. In the midst of everything, I've learned that you have to be extra cautious and to protect yourself and others. I have hope that there is always light at the end of the tunnel.”
Tami Bartholomew, Geisinger Community Medical Center, PA.
“My mom is a nurse in the OR and has been assisting as a site manager in the ER. I work in foodservice in the kitchen, and this pandemic opened my eyes to how every single department is so critical to the smooth running of the hospital. decided to make thank you bags to give back to those who are putting their lives at risk every day to save others.”