Kerrie Klein BSN ’07 is not one to shy away from the action. Before becoming a nurse, she got her adrenaline rush as a paramedic, although ultimately that became old. So did the lack of a steady income and career advancement. As she pondered what to do next, she thought she should take advantage of her background in clinical care, but she wasn’t sure how.
“To be brutally honest, I didn’t want to be a nurse,” Klein admits. “I did not really understand the heavy clinical aspect of nursing and the knowledge and dedication it takes. Now I think that being a nurse is incredible. Nurses are really the machinery that makes the hospital work.”
Although she applied to several programs, the accelerated program at the Mount appealed most to her. However, the biggest draw was its reputation. “Every time I say where I got my degree, people are impressed,” Klein says. “The teachers had high expectations; there was no scooting by. You had to get close to your classmates. You leaned on each other to get through. I’m so proud to be a Mount alum.”
Klein went straight into the ICU and critical care training program out of nursing school, choosing the Sunset/Los Angeles medical center because she wanted the highest acuity and the challenge of the ICU. The faculty at the Mount had always encouraged students to explore their numerous career options and push further, so after three years, Klein decided to try to join the nurse anesthetists, whom she viewed as superheroes. On her first try, she got one of only three spots from a candidate pool of 550.
Since 2012, Klein has worked for Kaiser Permanente in Panorama City. At the start of the COVID-19 battle, Klein dismissed any talk of healthcare workers being heroes. “We chose to do these jobs,” she says. “but we never thought we were going to face something like this. So I’d say we’re reluctant heroes.”
As a nurse anesthetist, Klein is involved in the highest-risk procedures in terms of exposure to the virus, getting a first-hand view of its devastating effects. For example, Klein intubated a patient who was COVID-positive and not responding to treatment, despite being intubated, getting CPR, and having a tube thrust into her chest to decompress air surrounding her lung. Each step added more opportunities for the virus to be aerosolized.
Even before a routine surgery, Klein is on the front lines. She’ll go in and intubate the patient in the OR and sit in the room alone with the patient as the air is being filtered. “We’re like the bomb squad going in by ourselves. ‘Ok you guys, you can come in now, we’ve deactivated the bomb.’”
In May, Klein’s 350-bed hospital was admitting approximately 35 COVID-19 positive patients a day, which she says is probably at the lower end of being impacted. By contrast, Kaiser Permanente Downey was seeing 50 to 60 positive patients a day. “Perhaps 35 positive COVID patients a day doesn’t sound like a whole lot in ratio to our bed size, but most of those patients are critically ill,” she says. “And they’re not the only COVID-positive patients we see; we send the majority of them home.”
All the other patients they admit—those with appendicitis, cancer surgery, etc.—must be treated as if they have the virus. “I was with a case in which a woman had a mastectomy,” Klein says. “The next day, she tested positive. So she was essentially positive when I took care of her.
“I know that I’m helping people,” she says, “and I know that I have the same integrity that I had pre-COVID and that I’ll do the right thing to the absolute best of my ability. Every patient is super important to me; I know they’ve never met me before but they trust me so I continue to do the absolute best job that I can; I just feel sad that we’re limited by supplies. It’s just so aggravating.”
Klein says that Kaiser Permanente has done an amazing job trying to obtain PPE and follow the CDC guidelines that seemingly change from one minute to the next. “I’m very proud to work for them,” she says. “They’re doing the absolute best they can.”
Although Klein refers to herself as a bit of a lone wolf, she says that the social isolation is starting to wear on her. “It’s hard not to see people,” she admits, “but I’m going to be very responsible because I could definitely be a carrier and not know.”
Klein refers to nursing as an important, often underappreciated job. And although she loves her career, she can’t imagine being a new nurse or doctor during this time. “The only thing keeping me going is my experience,” she says. “The intuition that comes from experience. It’s our responsibility as a community to fix the problems associated with responding to a pandemic.”