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A carer at heart, Sochurek nursed coronavirus patients back to health
by Chuck Gordon

Early on in the coronavirus pandemic, nurses encountered situations that were more than a little unsettling.

Take N-95 masks, for example. They used to be thrown away after every use, to reduce the risk of spreading infection. But back in the spring, although nurses and other healthcare providers were confronting a highly contagious disease, they were being forced to reuse those masks, since personal protective equipment (PPE) was a precious commodity.

“Honestly, if anyone in management saw you reusing the same mask for multiple patients, that would be a pretty big disciplinary action in the past,” Tiffany Sochurek ’07 said in April. “Now we’re just using the same mask, wearing the same eye gear, for multiple patients.”

Tiffany Sochurek wearing a surgical mask

Sochurek, a communications major at Wingate, realized after graduation that nursing was her calling. She went back to get a nursing degree a few years ago, and she works full-time as a nurse in Lexington, Kentucky.

But for a while she worked as a traveling nurse, and earlier this year that meant treating Covid-19 patients, and others, at a large hospital in Augusta, Georgia, on a short-term contract. There, she saw firsthand how the crisis had altered the healthcare system. On the one hand, there were layoffs in many facilities nationwide, as elective surgeries were canceled and people stayed home rather than go see a doctor and risk contracting the virus. That led to a lot less revenue coming in for healthcare providers.

On the other hand, you had healthcare workers, like Sochurek, who were getting used to a complicated new normal. For nurses, that meant that something seemingly trivial – such as taking a few more minutes to put on all the required PPE – could have a profound effect on patient care.

“If something critical is happening with a patient in isolation, and you have to take that extra three to five minutes to get ready and go into the room, that’s three to five minutes of critical time that the patient might become very unstable,” Sochurek said.

The extra PPE can wear nurses down. It’s harder to breathe with the extra masks on, and for Sochurek that could lead to weird sensations by the end of one of her 12-hour shifts. “Mostly your skin afterwards kind of feels like you’ve been wearing a Band-aid over it the whole day,” she said.

Communication problems abound for nurses in the age of coronavirus. Because of the time it takes to put on all the required PPE, not to mention the need to preserve it, nurses need to take care of as much as possible each time they’re attending to a patient, and leaving the room for a second isn’t an option. If they need something, they can’t just step outside, remove their mask and yell down the hall.

But nurses are resourceful, and in the Covid-19 unit they developed a system that worked.

“It’s like knocking on the door hoping that someone pays attention to you,” Sochurek said. “They go get it and then kind of open the door a little bit and hand it through carefully so no one touches hands. It’s kind of like a little underground railroad as far as needing to get things sometimes. It’s like a big game of telephone.”

At times like those, Sochurek was grateful that she majored in communications at Wingate, rather than going elsewhere to get a jump on her nursing career (Wingate started its nursing program in 2012). She says her Voice and Diction and Interpersonal Communication classes were especially helpful.

“I use those skills that I learned from class every day, because some of my patients can’t talk or some of my coworkers are used to communicating only in medical jargon,” she said. “You kind of have to learn how to roll with the punches, and having a strong communication background really helps either get your point across or see what your patient’s trying to say.”

Sochurek grew up in Maryland and was recruited to Wingate by Kirk Sanocki, Wingate’s director of aquatics and head swim coach, who had coached Sochurek’s club swim team when she was younger. Sochurek went on to become a three-time All-American, one of the first crop of All-Americans produced by the program, which is now a national power.

I use those skills that I learned from class every day. You have to learn to roll with the punches, and having a strong communication background really helps either get your point across or see what your patient’s trying to say.

“Tiffany was one of the first people I thought of when attempting to build a recruiting effort for Wingate,” Sanocki says. “Her drive, passion and energy have always been off the charts. She has also always been a very kind, considerate and caring person as well. I cannot say that I knew she would end up doing what she is doing, but I can say it doesn’t surprise me in the least that she is using all those attributes, because that’s just who she is.”

After working in the restaurant industry for a few years, Sochurek wanted to find something more stable. Having been in the working world for a while, she finally improved her self-confidence enough to give nursing a go. She ultimately got a bachelor of science degree in nursing from the University of Alabama. In May she began a two-year master’s program to become a nurse practitioner with Registered Nurse First Assistant certification.

“At Wingate I did not step a foot in the science building, just because I didn’t think I could do it,” Sochurek says. “You know, their science programs are so rigorous. I didn’t think I was smart enough, to be quite honest.”

She is, and perhaps more important she’s a carer at heart. Working primarily in neurocritical care, Sochurek says that seeing patients who’ve had massive strokes come walking into her unit after months of rehabilitation is “the best feeling you can have.”

It pains her to see patients battling COVID-19 alone. It’s tough, because with the coronavirus, patients are wiped out. “They’re just more exhausted than I’ve seen any other patients,” Sochurek says. “They just are so weak and so tired.” On top of that, Sochurek and her colleagues are often the patients’ only support system, since visits from family members are extremely limited.

“They’re very scared,” she says. “I do have a hard time seeing when patients aren’t doing very well. But you know, I’ve been doing this awhile, and sometimes you just have to go about your day and do your job to make sure that they get better.”