Allison Hansen: Serving on the front lines

Written by Matthew Monroy
Photos by Pamela Smith
April 21, 2021

For most of the COVID-19 pandemic, Allison Hansen worked 12-hour hospital shifts taking vital signs, testing blood sugar levels and guiding patients on laps around the hallways — often in the densest COVID-19 areas of UPMC Passavant.

Despite the nonstop nature of her job, Hansen said she encourages patients to keep her busy — it’s her job to tend to patients around the clock, and the patients’ job to bother her.

“A lot of the older patients, they don’t want to be a bother — that’s a big thing,” Hansen said. “And I always tell them that ‘it’s your job to bother me, and it’s my job to bother you. So we’re both going to bother each other about this stuff, and we’re just going to have to get along with that.’”

Hansen has been working as a patient care technician at UPMC Passavant in McCandless — located about 25 minutes north of Oakland — since November 2019. Hansen started as a patient care technician but underwent more training to acquire the "advanced" portion of her title in January. About four months into her new position, the pandemic struck, dramatically altering the duties, time commitment and risk factor of her job.

COVID-19’s appearance on the global stage shattered medical protocol and redefined public health guidelines, ravaging areas of the United States with unprecedented hospitalization rates. Allegheny County is no exception — as of Tuesday, about 1,840 people in Allegheny County have died from COVID-19.

Although Hansen’s responsibilities as an APCT — serving food, checking heart rates and temperatures and tending to the general care of patients — remain largely the same, she is working tirelessly with the added pressure of a global pandemic.

Hansen graduated from Pitt in December with a degree in natural sciences and a certificate in community health assessment and works at the hospital full-time. She plans to attend a physician assistant grad school program, where her experience as an APCT will help fulfill the patient hours requirement of the application.

UPMC hired Hansen during her junior year at Pitt, and she initially worked at the hospital part-time, commuting from her apartment in South Oakland. But once the pandemic hit in March, she found herself working later and struggling to balance her classes with the hospital’s need for more help as COVID-19 cases surged.

“I just worked and did school when I could. I would go in for a four- or eight-hour shift and they would be like, ‘Can you stay? Can you stay?’” Hansen said. “So I’d end up being there for 16 hours.”

Hansen works in Passavant’s resource pool, which sends PCTs to work at a different unit each day according to the hospital’s needs. Once Hansen arrives for her shift, she receives her assignment — what floor she’ll work on and the medical information for her assigned patients.

As infection rates began rising in Allegheny County, Hansen said UPMC Passavant designated specific areas of the hospital for COVID-19 patients in March, sectioning these floors off to try to control the virus’ spread within the building. She added that the hospital started by demarcating the intensive care units as COVID-19 zones, but as cases and the need for more space rose, other floors were authorized as “COVID pods.” She said the hospital closed these pods in early February due to a decrease in case numbers.

But when the COVID-19 pods were still in place, Hansen spent most of her time there. These sectors had strict protocols, requiring workers such as Hansen to change into protective gear before entering the pods. Hansen wore a powered air-purifying respirator — a large, tubular air purification machine that pumps decontaminated air into the helmet of the wearer via breathing tubes.

“We wore big beehive suits, which is the best way I can describe it as, and then once we started getting more patients, they closed down entire units and made them entirely negative pressure,” Hansen said. “That’s where you were assigned for the day. We were kinda just going with what we had.”

Although the PAPR’s glass helmets provided a face-to-face interaction between the wearer and a patient, Hansen said the loud whir of the suits’ ventilation systems made holding a conversation difficult. Workers also wore custom-fitted N95 masks, designed to maintain a sealing fit. Hansen said the cumbersome equipment compounded the physical exhaustion of 12-hour shifts from 6:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.

“It completely exhausts you, not just what you do in a normal day as a PCT where you’re lugging people around and cleaning them up, which is already physically exhausting, but you add your PAPR, your N95 — seeing people so sick, it definitely does something to you,” Hansen said. “I was just so tired for so long. I was so heavy and tired and never wanted to do anything.”

Pamela Smith | Senior Staff Photographer

Hansen, who is originally from about an hour outside Philadelphia in Doylestown, said she always knew that she wanted to work in health care, although she started college intending on entering Pitt’s emergency medicine program. Though she did become a certified emergency medical technician and worked a short stint at NorthWest EMS in McKees Rocks, located just west of Pittsburgh, Hansen said she preferred the up-close and personal aspect of PCT work.

“I tell this to people — I’m in health care because I want to see people, I want to help people,” Hansen said. “So being a PCT — you’re in it. You’re seeing them throughout their day from 6:30 in the morning to 6:30 at night.”

As difficult as working during a pandemic can be, most health care workers seem to share Hansen’s ambition and commitment to making patients feel safe. Dena Strano, a registered nurse and Hansen’s direct supervisor at the hospital, said helping others is what drives people to work in health care.

“I think that’s instilled into anyone who goes into health care, that you have to look at these patients as individuals and not just patients,” Strano said. “They’re people with lives and families and you don't want to just treat this as a job.”

Along with the personal interactions between patients and PCTs also comes the social skills necessary for uplifting spirits and making patients feel comfortable — especially in the COVID-19 pods, where patients were allowed only one visitor for one hour a day for the duration of their stay. The hospital did what it could to simulate family visits and gave patients iPads to FaceTime in lieu of in-person visits.

As a result, keeping patients company became a much more crucial aspect of Hansen’s job. Since so many patients within the pods stayed at the hospital for long periods, Hansen grew familiar with lots of the faces. Working with patients who were, in some cases, stuck indoors for weeks at a time requires good people skills — something Hansen said only comes from experience.

“There are some patients that are having the worst day of their life, and they don’t want to have a conversation, they don’t want to chat,” Hansen said. “It’s knowing how to talk to people, it’s literally just being a people person — being kind and not projecting that you’re closed off, because if they feel like you’re closed off then they’re going to be closed off.”

Because of the restrictive circumstances of the pandemic, reaching that point of companionship with a patient was harder than usual. But it was often during the small interactions that Hansen said she felt closest to patients. Elizabeth Jardini, an APCT at Passavant who worked alongside Hansen in the COVID-19 pods, said the quiet moments with patients were the most memorable.

“The times you could dedicate a little more time to giving someone your care made it that much more special, in a way,” Jardini said. “Making sure they had a clean gown on after dinner or brushing their hair — it meant a little bit more.”

Between tending to patients, managing different floors and moving between units, working in a hospital setting can be stressful on any normal day. But during a pandemic, where rampant death and fear of infection is an everyday worry, front-line health care workers bear the brunt of COVID-19’s effects. Hansen said the constant up-close exposure to the pandemic makes separating work and home much harder.

“I try not to think about the stuff that happens at work,” Hansen said. “Of course, there are some shifts that are bad, and you take a lot of that with you. There are still some patients that I remember and think about that aren’t here anymore.”

The patients who “aren’t here anymore” isn’t something on which Hansen likes to dwell. For Hansen, keeping work at work and home at home means not thinking about the death or talking about it. The COVID-19 pods, where Hansen spent most of her time, housed several patients who stayed for long durations before passing away. Hansen is realistic — “it’s part of the job” — but she said she never rues the relationships she made with patients in the pods.

“You just got to know them more than you would a normal patient because you’re there all the time,” Hansen said. “And there were a couple that passed away and it was really hard, but I don’t ever regret getting to know them or being with them for that long.”

Hansen’s words often touched on the utter hopelessness endemic to most of last year and all of this pandemic. Headlines declaring yet another grim milestone in our nation’s dead — more than 564,000 American lives lost — which Hansen said she deliberately avoids reading, remind everyone of what is at stake. Hopelessness has come to define this time, especially for those with COVID-19 in hospitals like Hansen’s. Despite this, Hansen said she focuses on what hope she can provide for her patients, even if it’s just through a simple “hello.”

“That was one of the more important things to me, personally — just seeing how they were doing. The patients that were there for long, you’d be back the next day and be like, ‘How was your night? This is what happened to me, what happened to you last night?’” Hansen said. “Just giving them a taste of the outside world and telling them ‘you’re not alone,’ and you have all of us.”

Hansen is a former staff photographer at The Pitt News.