April 26, 2021

Nursing student’s road to graduation marked by life-changing experience battling the pandemic

Madison Wiljanen never imagined that her journey to graduation would include a global pandemic impacting her life and chosen profession in such a profound way.

 Madison Wiljanen

In March of 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic was taking hold around the world, the 23-year-old was grappling with numerous challenging decisions that struck close to home for the nursing student.

“At the time, I was a resident advisor on campus, working as a nurse extern at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, and I was completing my junior year in the nursing program. There was so much fear of the unknown and, to be frank, I truly believe that I witnessed some of the most tragic outcomes of the pandemic,” Wiljanen remembered.

“The ICU at Henry Ford was understaffed, and on the first day of the shutdown, I showed up to work and was told that I would be needed on the unit. I was really nervous. That day, I was in every room with every patient, I had burn marks on my face from the masks and it was the closest thing I’ll probably ever see to a warzone. I put four patients in body bags during that 12-hour shift. After that, I signed up to work the next three weeks in the ICU and ended up working roughly 60 hours a week.”

Wiljanen recalled leaving work that first day wondering if she would be able to see her family if she continued working during the pandemic, realizing that many sacrifices would be required.

“My mother is a hospice-care nurse for COVID patients and was also working long hours throughout the pandemic. She was my strongest support during that time. My family had to separate in fear of bringing the virus home, it was a strain on all of us.” 

Wiljanen said that despite the risks of working in health care during the pandemic, she felt fulfilled. “To this day, that sense of fulfillment reminds me that I chose the right career.”

Applying her academic and professional skills to Wayne State University, Wiljanen decided to tackle the challenges faced by the university during the pandemic. Foremost among the priorities was safety for the campus community of students, faculty and staff. As a member of the Student Senate, she was offered the opportunity of joining the Public Health Restart Committee as a student representative.

“Normally, as a student senator, I am advocating for students in whatever capacity I can, but I really didn’t even need to because the leadership of Interim Provost Laurie Lauzon Clabo made it clear that safety is a priority. I really felt that there were people looking out for us and making sure that we weren’t putting ourselves and our loved ones in positions of demise. I never felt that I was being pushed into returning to in-person, and there was always communication on where the university was standing that gave me a lot of peace of mind. I believe that if the members of these committees had relaxed when other universities were relaxing, that we would have had many more cases and would ultimately have contributed to the already poor outcomes that the city of Detroit has faced throughout the pandemic.”

Wiljanen has been administering the COVID-19 vaccine through Wayne State’s partnership with the Detroit Public Health Department. The university’s nursing program deployed students to work in tandem with community leaders delivering the vaccine to the most vulnerable in Detroit.

“My experience has truly come full circle. because I started out in the ICU, where there was no light at the end of the tunnel, no vaccine, no understanding of this virus, and now I have been involved in making the vaccine available to the community. My recent experience was with developmentally disabled adults in group homes all over Detroit. We went to six different locations in just five hours, and at every place you can see the hope, you can see the light at the end, and it has been so rewarding. I feel prepared to graduate from Wayne State and do good, do better, for the people who need it. I can’t thank the university enough for keeping us safe while supporting us to make a difference.”

On May 5, Wiljanen’s academic journey at the university will culminate with the conferring of a bachelor of science with a minor in public health from the College of Nursing. More than 4,000 graduating seniors will join her during the virtual spring commencement ceremonies.

Wiljanen plans to celebrate graduation on Belle Isle with a small group of family and friends while observing social distancing and masking up to safeguard against the virus that she battled on the front line.

Next steps for the Brighton, Michigan native will be a mixture of work and a little recreation. “I’m taking my boards in May, and hope to land a job as a RN at Henry Ford Hospital. I’ll also continue to help with the vaccination distribution. And, maybe, I’ll be able to take a road trip out west, something I’ve always wanted to do.”

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