Nursing students are ‘trailblazers’ at Hofstra

Inaugural class reflects on the past four years


Four years ago, a group of 28 students committed to pursuing a degree in nursing at a school that offered no lectures and frowned on standardized teaching and testing.

When Hofstra University and Northwell Health created the School of Graduate Nursing and Physician Assistant Studies, the goal was to bridge the gap between higher education and job placement. On May 18, Dean Kathleen Gallo said she saw that goal achieved when the school’s inaugural class graduated.

“We believe we have a very innovative, contemporary model for our students,” Gallo said, describing her students as “trailblazers” for their willingness to immerse themselves in their future careers by experiencing the life of a nurse on the job. That included working in the school’s simulation centers — the Patient Safety Institute and the Bioskills Education Center — as well as its frozen-cadaver lab.

And their studies often went beyond the classroom. Some students responded to natural disasters like Hurricane Harvey, in Texas; others worked on Northwell’s emergency task forces; and others pioneered new treatment programs that Northwell hospitals practice today.

When the U.S. faced an Ebola scare in 2014, after four documented diagnoses, 28-year-old nursing student Christian Velez joined Northwell’s emergency task force, which focused on treating patients and preventing the spread of the virus. The East Meadow resident and Mepham High School alumnus is still a part of the Northwell team, which he said is activated whenever a potential threat is identified.

“I was absolutely blown away by the opportunity to be able to be a part of it,” Velez said. “I want to be able to help people who aren’t able to give back. That’s my goal as a nurse practitioner. And I think it’s the most gratifying feeling to know I was able to do that.”

After Hurricane Harvey slammed into Texas late last August, the flooding and destruction tested the limits of hospital staffs while also limiting flood victims’ access to health care. Velez was among the first group of nurses that Northwell sent to Houston early last September to help out at area hospitals. He worked at the MD Anderson Cancer Center, where he was assigned to a 48-bed oncology unit and provided cancer treatment for patients who no longer respond to conventional therapies.

Velez and his fellow students worked out of Hofstra’s simulation labs once a week. On a typical day in the lab, students would take on a case-based scenario. They would speak to a high-fidelity mannequin or a human playing a role and address the “patient’s” symptoms. They would conduct a physical assessment, diagnose the “patient” and begin treatment.

“It was self-directed and it was self-guided,” Velez said, “which gave us a lot of learning opportunities.”

Andy Wong, a student from Queens, addressed the graduating class at the May 18 convocation. He acknowledged that the simulations had been difficult, but added that he learned that “if you’re not frustrated, you’re not doing your job.” He said that when students were tasked with diagnosing and treating a “patient,” the frustrating part was not knowing if the diagnosis was correct, and having to figure it out along the way.

Wong said that there were never any easy answers because, in the field, “we’re going to have to struggle and we’re going to have to search for those answers for our patients.”

As Michael Dowling, president and chief executive officer of Northwell Health, congratulated the graduating class, he noted the number of students who walked across the stage with toddlers. As Dean Gallo’s “trailblazers” worked toward their degrees, many of them had balanced their studies with raising families and working day jobs.

Dowling said that this impressed him, but did not surprise him, because, he said, “The people you constantly depend on, on an ongoing and continuous basis, are nurses.”