It’s been almost a year since the COVID-19 pandemic began, and several St. Petersburg College alumni are currently at the center of it and doing their part to help those affected. Health care workers and first responders on the frontlines of the outbreak have been facing extreme circumstances, including longer shifts and the risk of becoming ill themself.
Dr. Eric Carver, Acting Provost at St. Petersburg College’s Health Education Center, said that, despite the challenges presented to them by COVID-19, SPC’s graduates are serving in many crucial roles ranging from clinical and paraprofessional.
“Our Titan health graduates are exemplifying what it means to remain resilient and compassionate during our community’s time of need,” Carver said. “We are so proud of their accomplishments and continued engagement in the fight against COVID-19.”
Carver noted that SPC faculty, staff and leadership remain committed to supporting students and alumni, no matter the obstacles presented.
“We have more graduates on the way to fill vacant positions within our community health systems,” Carver said. “We will remain Titan strong in our commitment to our students and community throughout COVID-19 and well beyond.”
Below are a sampling of stories of SPC grads who are dedicated to bringing the #TitanStrong spirit into their workplaces to ensure the very best care for all of their patients.
Andrew Portale – Paramedic/Firefighter
Andrew Portale is a St. Petersburg College triple threat: He attended the Fire Academy, EMT school, and earned a paramedic certification. Currently employed by the Safety Harbor Fire Department in Pinellas County, he works as a firefighter and paramedic. He believes the COVID-19 pandemic has brought out the best in health care workers, which can be seen throughout the ranks.
“People are selflessly coming together to serve a common mission and taking care of their own along the way,” he said.
The importance of mitigating the risk of contamination among the ranks has increased, and he and his co-workers have dedicated themselves to that cause.
“We’re no longer operationally effective if all of our firefighters are on quarantine,” he said.
Portale said he learned in his studies to be ready for anything, which has been a bonus in this unexpected time.
“We learned an important lesson about being flexible,” Portale said. “While our paramedic class dealt with adversity early in the outbreak, (SPC Emergency Medical Services faculty) Dr. Cedric Harrington and his team reminded us that being flexible and having a contingency plan will set us up for a more favorable outcome throughout our career.”
Portale said that, despite the challenges, he has no regrets regarding his career choice.
“I believe in being a good steward and leaving this planet a better place than how I found it,” he said. “My hope is to make a difference when others need help the most.”
Linette Brodowski – Registered Nurse
Since March 2020, Linette Brodowski has been working on a COVID unit at a Clearwater hospital. She began her studies at SPC directly out of high school, first earning an associate degree in nursing, then a bachelor’s degree in nursing, graduating in 2015. She says she has used what she learned at SPC to advance in her career.
“I have used my knowledge and experience to move up very quickly in my hospital,” Brodowski said. “I currently work as charge nurse on my floor, overseeing all aspects of care.”
Brodowski says COVID has been a testament to the capabilities of health care workers.
“I have seen patients leave and go home to their families, and I have seen people who do not survive this terrible virus, and it tears families apart,” she said. “It has been taxing on every single one of the amazing nurses I work alongside, as well as the great physicians, respiratory therapists and patient care technicians who endure the same struggle.”
She hopes her hard work will make a difference.
“I hope to make my family and friends proud as we go down in history for what we are accomplishing,” she said.
Danielle Kurutz – Respiratory Therapist
Kurutz said she chose health care as a career path because she has always been fascinated with the human body and its workings. After graduating from SPC’s Respiratory Care program, she is employed as a Registered Respiratory Therapist at Lakewood Ranch Medical Center in Lakewood Ranch, Fla.
Having come into the respiratory therapy field shortly before the pandemic, Kurutz said it has made a tremendous impact on her career.
“Since this virus is a respiratory-related virus with an increasing demand in oxygen needs, it has propelled RRTs into the spotlight and put us in high demand,” she said. “Now is the time to be in this field and seek further advancement of respiratory therapy, as a whole.”
Between lab simulations and real-life clinical experience of cardiac arrests, emergent intubations, critical thinking and troubleshooting, Kurutz said she felt prepared in her studies for the high-pressure work situations she has encountered.
“Nobody has seen or experienced anything like this, and it has humbled many and evened the playing field for those who are veterans to the field and those who are new,” she said. “Newer graduates are fresh and have the book knowledge that many veterans have forgotten about. Together, with their experience and the knowledge we gained at SPC, we have been able to unite in this difficult time.”
Kurutz, who is currently in SPC’s bachelor’s program in Health Services Administration with a subplan in Respiratory Care, said that, despite the challenges, she is very fulfilled by her work.
“I gain immense satisfaction from connecting with and helping my patients,” she said.
Monica Nicolas – Registered Nurse
At a young age, Monica Nicolas was surrounded by people who worked in the health care field. She always looked up to them and knew she wanted to do the same thing one day. When, years later, her mother fell ill with cancer, she was grateful to have chosen that path.
“It allowed me the knowledge to care for my mother when she was diagnosed,” Nicolas said.
Amid a full-time job, starting a small business and caring for her mother, Nicolas graduated in 2020 from SPC’s BSN program. She is now working as a Registered Nurse in a cardiovascular intensive care unit. She says COVID has added new layers of stress to an already high-pressure job.
“As a frontline health care professional, I risk everything to care for patients,” she said. “I have been a nurse for 11 years, and I have never seen so many deaths and codes. There are times where I am physically and mentally exhausted from working long shifts, and every day when I go to work, I risk my own health and safety to care for others. I also fear that I will get the virus and pass it to my loved ones.”
The pandemic has also sparked innovation, and Nicolas started her own business, Heart Buddies, LLC., where she teaches basic life support (BLS).
“While working during the pandemic as a health care professional, it has pushed me to help more people,” she said. “It’s my dream that everyone gets certified in BLS, which can save lives. I care for so many post-code patients. Most of the patients go into cardiac arrest in the home, and the ones who received CPR immediately are the ones who have better outcomes.”
Glenn LaPlante – Paramedic/Firefighter
Born and raised in St. Petersburg, Glenn LaPlante first began taking classes at St. Petersburg Junior College in 1988. After a few career detours, he found himself back at SPC, finishing emergency medical technician paramedic certifications in November 2020. Not long after beginning his job, things took a wild turn as a global pandemic changed life and work for everyone.
“We had entire chapters and discussions on infectious diseases, but we weren’t truly expecting this to happen,” LaPlante said. “There was an awareness, but you never really think you’d need to use all that information.”
LaPlante, who recently accepted a position as a firefighter with St. Pete Beach, says COVID-19 has affected his job as a paramedic in many ways, from how calls are approached to hours worked to interaction with co-workers.
“COVID calls have increased call volume and hospital capacities, to the point where we sometimes have to go to other cities to find a rehab center or COVID facility with a bed. We’ve taken patients all over Florida.”
LaPlante says he works anywhere between 40 to 60 hours per week and wears a mask almost the entire time.
“The changed protocols mean that we have to stay masked, not just when we’re with patients, but also when we’re with co-workers. In a vehicle, in common areas, everyone must be masked. It adds up for a 12- to 15-hour shift.”
LaPlante says that the mask forces him to find new ways to find new ways to earn a patient’s trust.
“That comforting smile you’re giving them isn’t there any more,” he said. “I try and do it through a sense of humor. I make little jokes with my partner and the patient. Having some fun with the job and each other is very therapeutic for everyone.”
Sheri Evans – Respiratory Therapist
After her grandmother was hospitalized and needed a Respiratory Therapist, Sherie Evans was so interested in what an RT does, she embarked upon a career change and enrolled at SPC, graduating last July with an Associate Degree in Respiratory Therapy.
Evans, who is working at Tampa General Hospital as an RT while pursuing a Bachelor’s of Health Services Administration, said the emergence of COVID-19 motivated her to finish her classes quickly.
“Seeing the need for Respiratory Therapists all over the world made me want to finish my schooling and take my board exams as soon as I was able, so that I could start helping out in a hospital setting and taking care of patients at the bedside.”
Evans said she started hands-on training, even in the first week of the program, which set her up for success – even working in a pandemic.
“If there was something we wanted to observe, or participate with, the clinical preceptors made sure we were a part of those high-pressure situations, so that we knew how to handle them when we were working on our own,” she said.
She sees the pandemic as a learning experience, in which the healthcare industry can provide better outcomes of survival moving forward. She has no regrets.
“Changing my career when I did was the best decision for me, as it allows me to help people,” Evans said. “I can help them to heal and get back to their loved ones.”
JD Trent – Registered Nurse
All through high school, JD Trent worked as a lifeguard. He loved the adrenaline rush of saving a life, so a career in nursing was an easy decision for him. He earned his associate and bachelor’s degrees in nursing from SPC, and is now a Clinical Coordinator in the intensive care unit at Palms of Pasadena Hospital in St. Petersburg.
Ten years into his career now, Trent says the pandemic has him working 60 hours a week – at double speed. With families not allowed in, he has to balance his time between talking to families on the phone and caring for patients.
“Every day you get to work and it’s run, run, run,” he said. “Lately, it has been work harder not smarter, instead of the other way around.”
Trent, who is now looking for a master’s program in nursing, said the rigor he experienced in his studies, along with the personal attention he got from his instructors at SPC, prepared him for anything his career in health care might throw at him.
“I love that the classes at SPC are smaller, and I wasn’t just a number. I was taught to have confidence and trust in my abilities. They empowered me to be a better nurse and be an advocate for my patients.”