A letter to new nurses about entering the field in a time of crisis

Alumna shares her story about beginning her career in Chicago at the start of the AIDS epidemic.

Class of 2020 graphic collage

Dear fellow U-M School of Nursing alumni,

I am writing this first to wish you sincere congratulations on your graduation! I hope that the pride you feel right now stays with you throughout the years ahead. I have always been extremely proud of my University of Michigan roots, knowing it is one of our nation’s finest institutions and that the School of Nursing, in particular, has a great reputation and earns respect wherever I go.

Cathy Klose photoI remember years ago being in your shoes, graduating and being excited to move from Ann Arbor to Chicago, ready to begin my nursing career at Northwestern in the heart of the city. It was a thrilling prospect, and I was truly anxious to get out there in the real world and just start. Little did I know that shortly after moving to Chicago I would be moving into the heart of Boystown at the very beginning of the AIDS epidemic in 1981.

My first job was at Northwestern Hospital on a general medical-surgical floor, when a young man, Chuck, was admitted to my floor and became my primary patient. Coincidentally, he was also my neighbor. Chuck’s respiratory symptoms progressed along with other vague complaints, and he was eventually diagnosed with AIDS. Chuck was officially the first patient in Chicago to be diagnosed with this new AIDS disease. His diagnosis had to be confirmed by a physician flying in from San Francisco, one of the real hotbeds of AIDS as it was breaking out. That physician stayed several days, teaching hospital staff everything he knew about AIDS, which at that time was very little as the disease was just evolving.

This was a scary time back then. AIDS was becoming rampant among the gay community, which also happened to be my own neighborhood. Little was known about the transmission of the disease, let alone treatments. There were no anti-retrovirals even thought of, let alone developed. As a health care worker, I was right in the middle of it — still a relatively new grad trying to provide good care to my patient but also trying to control my own fear. It was a challenging time. Unfortunately, Chuck’s symptoms progressed and he ended up passing away. It was a very sad day, and even sadder since his partner wasn’t allowed to be with him. At that time, gay rights just weren’t there, and since he wasn’t family he wasn’t allowed to visit. Chuck died with just me at his side.

That year truly marked an important time in history as AIDS began to be identified, and as we grew our understanding about it we saw the impact on the gay community in addition to seeing it quickly spread beyond them to others. It was a challenging time to be in health care, but as I reflect back on that time now I am proud to have been a part of that groundbreaking period. I got to treat AIDS patients and participate in a moment in history from the front line, from the bedside. I felt like I was making a real difference caring for Chuck and then for the many others that quickly followed.

I see this coronavirus time now as something very similar. It is scary and it is sweeping our world, causing so many deaths and so much pain. We are all trying to read about it, learn everything we can and collect data on how it is transmitted, treated and, most importantly, prevented.

Once again, I feel I am making a difference. See, I left bedside nursing years ago and went into clinical research. Through the years I have worked in cardiology and transplant drug development, but over the past five years we have moved into cell and gene therapy development for cancers and rare diseases. As this coronavirus pandemic began, most of the clinical studies we were involved with were placed on hold. But as we learned more about COVID-19 infections from the data and experiences shared from China, we started learning that many of the triggers for severe COVID-19 symptoms are immunologic reactions to the virus. With that, many researchers are now quickly beginning studies with some of these novel agents used in cancers to break similar reactions to foreign pathogens and cells, and I am right back in the middle of it all over again! This time I may not be on the front lines, per se, providing bedside care for active patients like I was with AIDS, but I am making a difference as we test some of these potential treatments trying to save lives.

I know it may be a really challenging time to think about venturing out and stepping into patient care during the middle of this pandemic, but I ask you to consider seeing it as an opportunity to be part of something in history that none of us will ever forget. You became a nurse to care for people. And now, with all of the restrictions in pretty much all patient care areas, you may be the only person some of these patients get to see. You can make a difference; you will make a difference! You are needed. And these past four years at Michigan have prepared you for this.

I am confident you will be successful and look back on these days as I do now: proud to have been part of it all. I sincerely wish you all my best for a successful career ahead!

Go Blue!

Cathy Elmlinger Klose

Class of 1981