By Carol Masshardt
(This series will focus on healthcare professionals and their experiences during the Pandemic. All have some connection to South Boston.)
Some people seem born into a profession and challenges only seem to deepen a sense of who they are and what they do. South Boston’s Kate Nolan, Gynecology/Oncology nurse practitioner at Beth Israel Lahey Health Systems, is one of them.
“It’s really a calling,” she said. “I can’t imagine doing anything else. Caring for my patients is what is important to me, and I do it with full heart.” Graduating from Catholic University and then Simmons University for a master’s degree in 2006, she would become certified in Women’s Health and Adult Medicine. She wanted to be “well prepared “ for an ever-changing medical world and her planning was again inspired.
Originally from Delaware Maryland, without an early medical event or a family in healthcare, her passion may have arisen from a more an early sense of how to be engaged in a meaningful way.
“My mother was a teacher and father in banking, but for some reason at six years old I wrote a composition about wanting to be a nurse, “she said with obvious joy even now. “I’m not sure where it all came from. I had a neighbor who was a nurse and I saw her go to work every day, so maybe?”
The goal of the profession and her fit for it only became more certain with time. After working at Georgetown University Hospital, and prior to getting her master’s degree, Kate moved to Boston and worked at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Thoracic Surgery and then high-risk Obstetrics.
“I thought OB would be it, but it wasn’t,” she said. “Once I was in Gyn -Oncology I said, Ok, here it is.” She worked nights and weekends to get through Simmons and it took three and half years because of full-time work, but that didn’t deter her.
She joined Beth Israel in 2013 and started the KIND Clinic in 2019 where she works one day a week with developmentally challenged adults with cancer in addition to her primary work in out-patient Gyn/Oncology.
Any of these professional devotions could be interesting and impressive stories alone, but this now leads to 2019, when COVID changed almost everything.
“It was challenging,” said Kate Nolan with focused seriousness. “Initially, it was the shock of seeing everything shut down in what was such a busy place. I couldn’t see patients. I felt badly for the newly diagnosed and those starting treatment. It was a new way of figuring out how to be helpful. And, then telehealth. There is a high personal connection in this work, and how do you do it over a screen? And, then the days I went in were eerie and I was petrified for myself and everyone else. It was just very strange.”
Yet, none of this defeated her, even when she was assigned to the Swab Team which meant full protective gear and shifts that included overnights. Humor and empathy once again served her well. “We re-named ourselves the Swab Squad,” she said with a ready sense of teamwork even under dire conditions.
“I don’t fault anyone for not knowing what to do. Our lives were thrown upside down, “she said, recalling the multiple masks tight on her face. She still has occasional flashbacks to that period and sensation on her forehead.
Most profound and extending far beyond her own admitted exhaustion and fear, was her abiding care for patients.
“Imagine being at your lowest point as sick as you have every been and you are in a hospital where no one you know can be with you and then we’re covered head to toe. We at least had badges with our photo, but it was just beyond what you could have imagined,” she said.
So, this talented woman could have taken a break, or taught or done a host of other sustaining thing but did not.
In addition to her South Boston neighborhood, beloved dog, Seamus, yoga, and a myriad of interests, she has a naturally outgoing and positive way. Kate Nolan can also look at hard realities straight in the eye. However, if there is reason for optimism, she will find it.
“During the real COVID stretch, I had family and friends who were extremely helpful sending me packages, and then text messages and my colleague “pod,” and my dear friend at the Brigham,” she said, easily recounting a long list of what sustained her in a near impossible time. She also has gratitude.
“Believe me, others had it worse, ICU, Emergency Rooms, Floor Nurses, all had unending demands and risk,” she said it her characteristic worldview where everyone matters. She is the last to call herself a “hero,” and the first to approach changing circumstances with greater focus.
“We all had to learn to be adaptive and we are still learning,” she said. “But the gift of this is knowing that I am exactly where I want to be,” said South Boston and Beth Israel’s Kate Nolan with joy and determination.