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Kate Wilchek: A Bubbly Bundle of Charm and Compassion

June 3, 2017

There are over 23 million results when Googling “top 10 qualities of a nurse,” but empathy, skilled in communication, organization and adaptability and being emotionally stable, physically fit and knowledgeable are often listed. Senior co-op nursing student Kate Wilchek possesses all those traits and then some. Wilchek is a leader, she is incredibly self-awareness, she is funny and she is filled with compassion.

When considering college, Wilchek knew exactly what she was looking for. Her mother and sibling had been through the college search process already and figured out what questions to ask. “I wasn’t the first pancake,” she joked. “I have a brother; he was the first pancake, so my mom learned what to ask about the things we were looking for in a school,” Wilchek added. How equipped the labs are, with which hospitals the college is affiliated and the NCLEX pass rate were all very important in her decision. The College of Nursing and Health Professions’ simulation and standardized patient labs impressed her as did the co-op program of which she has taken advantage three times. “The co-op program is awesome. It’s job security,” she exclaimed. Those things constituted Wilchek’s academic requirements. Her social prerequisites emerged because she was from a small town in Connecticut. She was used to driving 20 to 30 minutes to get anywhere fun and wanted to be in the middle of a city where her seeming desperation for busyness could be mollified. Drexel filled both of her academic and social conditions. Her decision in choosing Drexel was also nudged along because she had been recruited for rowing (something that was short lived because she quickly learned that nursing school was really hard). “I want to be a nurse, not a professional rower,” she stated. She’s neither looked back nor once regretted that choice especially since she needed to learn study and other skills to help her be successful in the nursing program. “I didn’t know what worked for me because I hadn’t taken the time to learn how I needed to learn and I paid for it. I’ve spent the last five years recovering from not knowing this,” Wilchek confessed.

Wilchek has had many people and experiences help her figure out some really important aspects of her personality and her passion, not the least of whom were her professors and her Macy Undergraduate Leadership Fellows Program mentor. She knows that her instructors and professors have their students’ best interests at heart and really want to see them succeed, but Wilchek didn’t think that in the beginning. In fact, she was sure they were out to get her. “They would ask questions like ‘here are three oranges that are all orange, but which one is the most orange?’ and young me thought they didn’t want me to pass — they don’t want me to be a nurse,” she said. As it turns out, that is the furthest thing from the truth. Wilchek learned that the reason for questions like that was because it’s how the questions on the NCLEX are asked. “So I wasn’t on their radar as someone they hated. They really care about the subjects they teach and their students doing well.” She had to do the heavy lifting, but she had an incredible support system. So Wilchek became that student. She was the one sitting in the front row of her classes absorbing everything her professors told them. Mary Yost, PhD taught Wilchek in her critical care rotation and worked very hard making everything relatable and understandable. She said that Yost was clear in pointing out specifically what students needed to know and reminded them often that they are caring for sick people. The question for her was what kind of sick people she wanted to care for.

“If you had asked me seven years ago when I first said I wanted to be a nurse, I would have told you, ride or die, I will be a pediatric oncology nurse,” she marveled. Then she came to school and found out something really impactful: she doesn’t like working with kids. She discovered that about herself very quickly. On the very first day of her pediatric rotation at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, Wilchek’s instructor asked students what their biggest fears and concerns were. She wanted to be honest with herself and her instructor, so she responded how she really felt. “I don’t like children. They scare the crap out of me when they’re sick,” she announced. “They scream and cry. I know they’re just scared because they don’t know what’s going on and they’re not at home. I get it, but yikes,” conceded Wilchek. “Kids can sense fear and they sensed it all over me!” 

Once Wilchek burst the pediatric oncology bubble, she identified, through her course and clinical work, two things she loved — older adults and critical care. She is very at ease talking to elderly patients. “I like interacting with them and asking about their grandchildren,” she confided. “My grandparents like to talk about me, so I figure other older people like to too. It’s an easy topic of conversation from which you can build a relationship. I really enjoy that.” She also concluded she wanted to go into critical care because it’s unpredictable and forces you to remember and use your brain. With critical care, patients are so sick — nurses have to be on their “A” game when they walk through the door to treat him or her to quickly assess the situation. “It’s why I love the emergency department so much. You see so many types of people and a wide range of symptoms coming in.” Once she did her last co-op in the emergency department at Penn Presbyterian Medical Center, she was hooked, however she needed a strong advocate and mentor to help her really go for it. Wilchek knew that getting into an emergency departments was a long and expensive process and started considering options like going to a medical-surgical floor or the ICU for 18 months before applying. Laurie Colborn, Wilchek’s Macy mentor would hear none of it. One of the things Colburn stressed was not settling for something other than what you really love and Colborn, knowing how Wilchek felt about critical care, thought a year and a half was an unacceptable amount of time to spend on a floor she really didn’t want to be on.

The Macy Undergraduate Leadership Fellows Program is a voluntary for-credit certificate program aimed at helping students develop leadership and life skills and it’s a program Wilchek thought she really needed to part of. In addition to the mentoring aspect, fellows take part in interprofessional learning, setting professional and personal goals and building networks meant to serve them for a lifetime. Colborn, RN, MSN, PhD (c) is a community health nurse working in preventive health at Independence Blue Cross. In addition to having nursing in common, both women are runners and planned on participating in the Broad Street Run in Philadelphia. Wilchek surprisingly placed third in April’s Johnson & Johnson Care Run, a 5K race at the 65th annual National Student Nurses’ Association conference in Dallas and was looking forward to the Broad Street Run. The two women saw each other at packet pick-up area before the race, then again at the finish line where Colborn seemed much more hyped than Wilchek felt. “I couldn’t understand it. We both just ran the same ten miles, but then I saw her time. She beat me by 50 seconds,” Wilchek announced.

From a mentoring perspective, Colborn seemed to approach it much like training. She helped Wilchek develop a timeline for completing her resume, applying for jobs and reaching out to faculty members who work in critical care to discuss her interest in the area. She encouraged her to really go for what she wanted. The Program helped Wilchek learn conflict resolution techniques and therapeutic communication skills boosting her self-confidence. “The Program has supported me in finding my voice,” she acknowledged. “It’s showed me how to go into the workforce and not be so mousy. I can stand up for myself and my patients.” If you met Wilchek, you would think she is anything but mousy. She is assertive but in a way that makes one feel safe and listened to. She related a story of a friend who called her about a medical concern and needed guidance. Wilchek advised and assured him she would be there for him which seems to be her modus operandi — compassionate encouragement mixed with knowledge and experience. Patients, as human beings, can get lost in the well-oiled machine that’s a hospital. Medical staff may view them as just a set of symptoms and not see fear, sadness and resignation. Wilchek won’t. She loves bedside and claims that one doesn’t have to be so in and out all the time. “Stories of patients recounting great experiences with nurses make my heart happy.”

As far as what the future may hold for this dynamic young woman, she’s indicated wanting to become a clinical instructor so she can offer future nurses the same kind of education she got. Her five-year plan includes being a charge nurse and active in a trauma bay. For now, she’ll be attending to the needs of her patients in the emergency department with all the compassion and skill she already exudes.

By Roberta S. Perry