“We left artistic careers to take care of others”

Corey Rives Visual Arts / Jorg Meyer

registered nurses

Oprah Daily’s The Pivot series shines a light on the stories of people who have chosen to step away from their career field or job and into more meaningful work. Do you have a great pivot story? Email [email protected] and maybe we’ll feature it in a future column.

The early months of the COVID-19 pandemic were a scary time. A few lost friends and loved ones. Some found themselves in involuntary loneliness while others thought they would never have a moment alone again. People lost their jobs, while many of them were still forced to work at the risk of falling ill. In New York, the din of ambulance sirens never stopped, a constant reminder of untold suffering. Amid all this darkness and uncertainty, a small window of hope opened up every day at 5 p.m., when, in many cities, people banged on pots and pans to thank superheroes. of our new reality: healthcare workers.

In our first story for The Pivot column, we celebrate a crop of recent nursing school graduates – newly anointed heroes for the COVID-19 era. Although we face a continuing shortage of nurses, with a recent report showing that 30% of nurses are still considering leaving the profession– the pandemic has been a catalyst for some to pick up a stethoscope. Cue Columbia University’s nursing program, which has seen an increase in admissions since the start of the pandemic. “In the first six months of the pandemic, we were amazed to receive a 30% increase in applications. The phones kept ringing,” says Judy Wolfe, senior associate dean of student affairs at the Columbia School of Nursing.

We need people with different skills and life experiences.

Founded in 1892, the Columbia School of Nursing was designed with second-career hopefuls in mind; in 1990, almost 100 years later, the school launched its innovative accelerated program guaranteeing a Master of Science degree in 15 months. To promote diversity, the program has adopted a new “holistic” admissions process: This means focusing less on academic records and more on who potential students are, where they are from and what they value, as well as only proof that they care passionately about vulnerable populations. According to Wolfe, the idea of ​​nurses being just bedside or bedside care is long gone: “In recent years, you will see that nursing has exploded in local areas, government, education, businesses – it’s everywhere. That’s why we need people with different skills and life experiences.”

Here, two recent graduates and a current student from Columbia’s nursing program, talk about finding the courage to become a beginner in a totally new career field and what they learned along the way.

Pivotal lesson: Your response to “What would you do if it wasn’t that?” Do it!

From the age of 16, Avra Mass knew she wanted to be a ceramist. At 17, she attended one of the nation’s top ceramics undergraduate programs, followed by a top graduate school. At the age of 23, she was a teacher in her field. But after more than 25 years working in the art world, she decided it was time to pursue the path she hadn’t taken. She is currently working as a nurse in an oncology unit and studying full-time to earn her doctorate to become a nurse practitioner.



“I’ll just say this about the art world: It’s very misogynistic. I’ve experienced it all my career. In undergrad, one of my professors was doing surveys to find out which girls were the most beautiful. When I became a teacher, my school always supported male graduates rather than female. Galleries were more likely to exhibit male work. I also found it very difficult to return to the world of art. art after having children. I finally took a job at a lamp company, where I did all the glazes and surfaces for the product. When it was time for me to get a promotion, they gave to a 23 year old guy with no experience. Every day I came home so miserable from this job.

That summer, my wife and I took a road trip to Maine that turned out to be a long drive with no cell service. So we started playing games. She asked me, “What would you do if you couldn’t be an artist?” I have always been interested in medicine. Most of my sculptures refer to internal organs and medical devices. I said, “I would like to be a nurse.” On September 1, I was taking prerequisites. I graduated from Columbia nursing program in 2020.

Three days after Columbia received its first case of COVID, the university closed and moved away. Columbia worked out a system with the New York Presbyterian for students to work as technical nurses. I learned to wrap bodies immediately. It was just devastating. One dead every day. But I felt like I was part of the solution during this global pandemic. I know it’s not the voice you usually hear, but I found it very exciting: I immediately took the start.

I think everyone should make a career change in their 40s. It’s invigorating. I am excited about my future in this field and so grateful to be a part of it. I really like. I know there’s a lot of burnout in this profession because there are few people in the wazoo, but I’m still unaffected by it. My batteries are fully charged.

Pivotal lesson: The skills you’ve honed over years in one area might be what makes you great in another.

By the time Tristan Kim had left university in Korea, where he studied French, Japanese and acting, he had already been cast in numerous short films, commercials and television shows. Kim’s job took him to Thailand where he was part of a K-POP group, which led to a hosting offer from MTV Thailand. Kim rejected the offer and moved to Hollywood to continue acting. When the pandemic hit and everything, including the entertainment industry, was put on hiatus, Kim went from show business to enrolling at Columbia for nursing.

sad nurse

Jei Romanes/Island Photo

During the pandemic, I was working in a Japanese restaurant, [where the staff] were like my second family. When the restaurant closed, it felt like we were going through the devastation together. And, of course, there was government help. I decided that I needed some financial stability in my life. My father is an ophthalmologist and my grandmother was a pediatrician; I grew up watching them. I think their dedication to helping people really touched me.

I had never thought of going to Columbia Nursing School; I didn’t know English until fairly recently. I worked really, really hard. I remember being very moved when I received the acceptance letter.

My acting background helped me a lot with the nursing program. As actors, we are taught to deepen our own psychology, to understand ourselves, which translates well to understanding others. The more I know myself, the more I can help you. An example is my ability to read nonverbal cues. A patient might say their pain is 3 out of 10. I look for other clues: grimaces on the face, or maybe the patient is shaking; it kind of indicates that this patient is in a lot more pain than he says.

I love nursing, but I don’t try to shy away from acting. I don’t know when my break will come. When I have a break from acting, I want to focus on nursing. If I book something, maybe I can take some time off. I want to keep both professions because I think both are very beautiful.

Pivotal lesson: “Nothing in life is linear. You just have to go where your heart takes you. As they say in comedy, go before you’re ready.”

Danny Burgos was on tour with a Broadway musical titled The group visit when the pandemic hit and her whole life changed. When the show had to come to a halt in Pittsburgh, Burgos returned to live with his family in Miami. Before being swept away by the lights of musical theatre, he had wanted to be a nurse, so he took the plunge. In May 2022, he gave the commencement address at his graduation from Columbia’s nursing program and now plans to work in community medicine with a focus on LGBTQ+ inclusive care.

nurse danny

Danny Burgos

“My story begins in 2009 when I graduated from high school. I wanted to be a nurse, but I took an anatomy and physiology course in college and it killed me. changed my major to musical theater, which had always been very easy for me. Right out of college, I booked a national tour of The beauty and the Beastthen regional productions of In the heights. In 2016, I booked on your feet, my first Broadway show. Then I got The group visit.

If you look at my resume, I’m still the chef’s understudy. I became very negative. I kept getting closer to Broadway – they always went with the other guy. I kept telling my friends, I think this is my last show. And then we arrived in Pittsburgh at the height of the pandemic. Soon we were all out of a job. I ended up moving back to Miami at 30, living in my childhood bedroom.

Remember in the early days people were banging pots and pans outside their windows for healthcare workers? This is what first made me think. I woke up one morning and decided that I was going to finish what I had started and complete the prerequisites for nursing. I got to anatomy and physiology, the classes that had broken me, and I overcame them. It was really fantastic. So I started applying to schools.

Nothing in life is linear. You just have to go where your heart takes you. As they say in comedy, leave before you’re ready. You will never be ready to make a huge change in your life. You do it slowly but surely. And then you look back, and it’s a year and a half later, and you’re a nurse.”

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