By Diane Gasper-O’Brien
University Relations and Marketing
Every single person has been affected in one way or another by the outbreak of the coronavirus that hit the United States in February.
Nursing graduates from Fort Hays State University are dealing with effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on a day-to-day basis all across the country.
Curtis Kramer is a 2009 graduate who says he and fellow medical personnel appreciate the overwhelming support and gestures of gratitude they are getting for their work during these challenging times.
However, he says there are a lot of heroes who he thinks deserve recognition for how they are dealing with situations that put them at increased risk.
“I chose a career in nursing for this very reason – to care for others,” Kramer said. “A lot of people didn’t choose this way of life. But most are rolling with the punches.”
In addition to those working on the front line, Kramer thinks others who should be recognized for doing their part are – well, basically everyone.
“We should be thanking and appreciating each other,” Kramer said. “Although I’m working in a hospital, I’m not the only one making sacrifices. There are people out of jobs trying to make their way, parents working at home while teaching their children at home, people who are staying home, doing what they are supposed to be doing, because that’s protecting us.”
Following is Kramer’s story of his journey from FHSU to San Francisco, as well the journeys of two other alums. Although working in different parts of the country, they all credit the Fort Hays State experience for preparing them for their pivotal roles during this pandemic, something never before seen in their lifetime.
Curtis Kramer, interventional radiology nurse, University of San Francisco Medical Center
After traveling the country and working in numerous ICU units for several years after his graduation from FHSU, Kramer had the chance to move to radiology about a year and a half ago at USF Medical Center.
“I just wanted a change of pace,” he said.
That was before the pandemic hit. While he doesn’t work on the frontline, Kramer still sedates and cares for patients during procedures.
Now accustomed to city life, Kramer – who grew up in Cimarron, a town of about 2,200 in southwest Kansas – said he will never forget his roots.
“I feel very fortunate to have grown up in the most amazing circumstances in Kansas,” he said. “Now in my adult life, I am blessed to live where science is revered and people kind of look out for each other in that sense.”
After working at HaysMed for about two years after graduation, he decided to pursue traveling nursing, working from California to Hawaii, then New York, before settling down in California. After four years of caring for “some of the sickest patients I’d ever seen” at Stanford University Hospital, he moved north to San Francisco to take the radiology job.
Working in so many different venues was invaluable experience for Kramer, but he maintains that it all started at his alma mater in his native state.
“Fort Hays State prepared me to work in large hospitals and with high-tech scientific medicine,” he said. “Not only did I get the background to navigate work proficiently in those hospitals, but I was able to take with me the spirit of FHSU and the spirit of Kansas when I work with and care for patients.”
Kramer learned about caregiving in high school and college when both his parents were battling cancer.
Fort Hays State University was the closest four-year university to home, and its affordability was attractive. But there was something closer to his heart that drew Kramer to FHSU.
“Fort Hays State won me over with its charm,” he said. “I felt at home.”
During his parents’ battles with cancer, Kramer spent time in ICU units, and that cemented his decision to become a nurse.
“I felt like I was raised in ICU,” he said. “I’ve always been a caretaker with my friends and family, and when my parents were sick, I loved what nurses did. They were the caring ones.”
Brian Pfannenstiel, director of critical care, Hays Medical Center, Hays
A native of Chapman, Pfannenstiel stayed in Hays after graduating with his bachelor of nursing in December 2003.
He has worked at Hays Medical Center ever since, and his duties have ranged from the surgical floor to the progressive care unit to his current position in critical care. He is set to graduate later this month with a master’s in nursing administration.
While the pandemic brought with it different issues he had never before encountered, Pfannenstiel didn’t panic because of what he had learned in his master’s preparation classes.
“There’s the complexity theory, where we learned how changing one variable can affect 10 other consequences,” he said. “As nurses, we take care of sick patients every day. Obviously, this is a different situation, but during our program, we looked at all kinds of care models.”
Pfannenstiel said he is able to manage the additional stress these days by keeping in mind the healthcare code of ethics.
“We need to look at the patients holistically and put the patients first. But,” he admitted, “we are doing things I wouldn’t have even considered six months ago.”
For instance, HaysMed can move patients to an outside window so they can see their loved one’s face to face while visiting them on the phone.
HaysMed also has iPads available for patients to visit with loved ones through Zoom.
“Going through the master’s program, we learn about the necessity to be prepared for anything we might experience, and I believe that we are,” he said.
As a director, Pfannenstiel said in addition to keeping up-to-date with the scientific and evidence-based care for patients, he feels it’s his responsibility to give his staff up-to-date information daily to help decrease anxiety.
“It’s important that we have increased communication at this time,” he said. “I try to keep them factually informed. We have to be well prepared for any eventuality.”
Madison Putman, registered nurse, ICU, Vanderbilt University Medical Center, Nashville, Tenn.
Similar to Kramer, Putman’s decision to become a nurse was cemented while dealing with her mother’s cancer as a high school senior in Wichita.
She attributes not only the nursing skills learned at Fort Hays State but another college experience that made an indelible impression on her. Putman played outfield for the Tiger softball team from 2012-15.
“I think being a college athlete prepared me the most for this kind of situation,” said Putman, who graduated with her bachelor of nursing in 2016. “Our coach always taught us to pay attention to detail, to be prepared for whatever might come, and then you aren’t caught off guard as much.”
That adaptability has now become a way of life for Putman, who works primarily in ICU. She referred to a presentation during her senior year in college as a defining moment. The presenter told the students that one day they were going to be the ones who will need to step up and react while the world is still in shock.
“He was right,” Putman said. “These COVID-19 patients are like nothing I’ve ever seen. We, as health care professionals, are still learning and adapting to how these patients present themselves and how they change during their hospital stay.”
Putman learned early on in the pandemic how serious it is when her first patient who tested positive for the virus didn’t survive.
“That was a huge reality check for us,” she said. “All the unknowns about the virus can be frustrating.”
Even with all the uncertainty surrounding her, Putman said that listening to and caring for the patients is rewarding. She often calls on lessons learned at FHSU to help her keep moving forward.
“When things get chaotic, the best thing we can do is stay calm and keep our emotions at bay,” she said. “Everyone is going to benefit from that in the long run.”
In what has become the new normal, Putman takes each day one at a time without planning too far ahead. Whatever she will face in the coming days, weeks and months, she is certain of one thing.
“Nursing is a calling, and it was my calling,” Putman said. “I’ve never doubted it, even in this pandemic.”
By Diane Gasper-O’Brien