Mt. Airy resident: 'It's an amazing time to be a nurse!'

Posted 5/29/20

Whenever a Covid patient is discharged, a huge “flower” is placed in a “survivor garden” in front of the hospital. (The “flowers” are not plastic but some weatherproof material). “We …

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Mt. Airy resident: 'It's an amazing time to be a nurse!'

Whenever a Covid patient is discharged, a huge “flower” is placed in a “survivor garden” in front of the hospital. (The “flowers” are not plastic but some weatherproof material). “We just 'planted' 30 more on Tuesday,” said Karen Anderson (second from right), seen here with fellow nurses. The project is highlighted on Penn Medicine's Facebook page.

by Len Lear

Karen Anderson, a West Mt. Airy resident for 28 years and a nurse at Philadelphia hospitals for 42 years, is a glowing oven of warmth and kindness with a razor-sharp switchblade of a mind.

“It is an amazing time to be a nurse!” said Anderson, 63, who has been a clinical nurse specialist for the last eight years at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania (HUP), last week.

“They are so courageous. I'm so proud to be a nurse. Families say, 'What you do matters.' We have learned that masks definitely do save lives and that you really do have to wash your hands often and keep social distancing. The first Covid-19 patient here (at HUP) was on March 8. Five hundred have been discharged so far. These 10 weeks have been daunting. When there is a Covid discharge, sometimes the staff lines up to applaud for the ones who have been here the longest.”

Anderson and her colleagues consult with patients and their family members in what they call “family-centered care.” They use a video platform called Bluejeans (like Zoom) in the hospital to connect with families and keep them informed about their loved ones' condition because there are very strict limits on visitors. Women in labor can have only one visitor, for example, and non-Covid end-of-life patients can have only two visitors.
“The hospital has done amazing things to keep families in touch. The hospital provides Bluejeans so we can do family meetings, update the family. The doctor calls the family if the patient dies, not us. We have had up to 100 Covid patients at any given time. In the first month of the pandemic the visitors center had to close.” (The visitors center is an attractive area in the hospital that provides free coffee, donuts and breakfast, all donated by Wawa, to family visitors.)

“Anything we can do to mitigate caregiving we will do. I don't do direct care of Covid patients, but I call families to offer emotional support and guidance. This is unprecedented. We have connected with over 200 families. They are so appreciative and grateful to the staff for caring for their loved ones. They often say, 'Tell the staff how appreciative we are.'”
Anderson worked with a team to come up with strategies to acknowledge the recovery of Covid patients, which helps staff morale. They planted a “survivor garden” in front of the hospital and play “Here Comes the Sun” when a patient is discharged. “These visible signs of recovery and healing give hope to those on the wards and to patients and families entering the hospital,” said Anderson...

“In March I went to a local Acme and thanked the checkout person. She had no protection at all. She was more susceptible than I was. We go to work, and an operating room nurse is the best cheerleader. She holds up a sign, thanks us all and shakes pom poms. It really helps raise morale, just like planting the survivor garden.”

Anderson was born in the Philadelphia Naval Hospital. Her parents both were in the  Marine Corps, so they lived near Marine bases in several states. She has an undergraduate degree from the Rutgers-Camden Nursing School, a masters degree from the U of P School of Nursing and additional training in “advanced practice.” She worked at HUP from 1978 to 2000, then Friends Hospital on Roosevelt Boulevard for two years, then Children's Hospital of Philadelphia from 2002 to 2012 and then back to HUP. She has been married for seven years to Suzanne Brennan, 60, who has a doctorate degree in psychiatric nursing and has a private practice, but they have been together for 35 years. “We were supposed to go to Switzerland on May 8 to celebrate our 35th anniversary,” said Anderson, “but we had to cancel because of the pandemic. That was sad, but it's small stuff compared to Covid.”

HUP is now taking appointments for non-Covid patients and elective surgery, which is one step on the road back to normalcy. “Patients and doctors both have to have their temperature taken and wear masks. I actually feel safer in the hospital than in the park, where lots of people congregate, many without masks or social distancing. Now in the waiting room every other chair is occupied. It is time to stop putting off appointments for elective surgery. The Penn Medicine system is also starting to screen mammograms, colonoscopy, etc.”

Anderson leads something called the Patient and Advisory Council, whose members have all been patients or family members of patients at one time or other. The council's purpose is to make sure that patients and their families have a voice in the treatment patients receive.

“It will help us to make better decisions. I have 15 volunteers who have been family caregivers themselves. They make rounds, talk to families about resources, give guidance on how to navigate the hospital. People are stressed when their loved ones are in the hospital. Anything we can do to lessen that stress, we will do.”

Len Lear can be reached at

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