Graduating Senior, Aidan Shields
With a Little Bit of Luck: Duquesne Student Turns Bad Timing Into Great Opportunities
Last summer, Shields was one of just 50 participants chosen from more than 1,000 applicants worldwide to receive an externship at the prestigious Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. "I remember thinking the Mayo Clinic externship was a long shot, but I figured it was worth trying," he recalls. "When I got an email saying I was accepted, I was genuinely surprised."
Shields shares that he was both honored and excited to take up residence at a place that was named the nation's best hospital for five consecutive years by U.S. News & World Report.
"In addition to a great professional experience, the externship was also a unique, immersive experience," says Shields. "All the externs were housed together at a local university. We would work all week in our assigned units, then spend our free time together kayaking, hiking, sightseeing and attending outdoor concerts. So it was a different externship experience than I would have had in Pittsburgh or even back home in the D.C. area. We were all strangers from across the United States and a few from other countries who were working, living and spending time together.
"The Mayo Clinic sees people from all over the world. It even has its own fleet of private jets to retrieve patients who come from all 50 states and nearly 140 countries to find answers to complex and sometimes rare illnesses." Assigned to Mayo's Medical Intensive Care Unit (MICU,) Shields admits it was a culture shock. "Even though I worked as a patient care technician in a progressive care unit at Allegheny General Hospital in Pittsburgh since my freshman year, I was not prepared for the intense environment of an MICU unit. Especially one that receives such unusual cases from all over the world. For example, I was assigned a patient who had undergone a black market organ transplant, multiple patients from a hot tub legionella outbreak and a patient who was bleeding from every orifice due to thrombotic thrombocytopenia purpura.
"On several occasions, my preceptor and I were floated to the Transplant ICU. One of the nurses on my unit was part of the flight team and flew with a fixed-wing aircraft crew all over the world to bring patients to Mayo."
Beginning in July 2022, the experience will continue, as Shields has accepted an RN position at the Mayo Clinic's demanding MICU. "I went into the externship with the mindset that it would be one long job interview, which in the end paid off. Since I intend to apply to a CRNA doctorate program in a few years, going straight into an MICU unit after graduation will give me the exposure and skills required to attend a CRNA graduate program."
Shields' desire to become a nurse grew slowly over the course of several years and began after witnessing three medical emergencies while participating on his high school rowing team in Ashburn, Va. The first incident occurred during practice when one of his fellow teammates suffered a stroke during practice-an exceptionally rare diagnosis for someone so young-and the second occurred the following year when a jogger running near the team experienced and unfortunately succumbed to a cardiac arrest.
But it was the third incident that proved to be a turning point for Shields. Another teammate, with no history of asthma, suddenly found himself struggling to breathe mid-stroke during practice on the Potomac River. Taking action, Shields helped talk him through it and coached his breathing until a trained professional arrived.
"It was crazy," Shields recalls. "But it caused me to begin thinking about how I could make a true difference in another person's life."
He began his journey while still in high school working as an EMT in his hometown fire department. The experience, he says, was informative and formative. It exposed him to various scenarios that ranged from an elderly patient who slipped and fell to a multi-car pile-up on the highway. Altogether, it drove home his growing passion for patient care.
Shields shares that like his EMT experience, it was the wide variety of cases that drew him to the MICU. "The MICU services the broadest range of patients. The MICU is prepared to treat a wide array of illnesses and complex conditions that range from congestive heart failure to liver disease to traumatic brain injuries. It runs the whole gamut," he says. "It definitely kept me on my toes and challenged me every day."
Shields was surprised to learn that MICU nurses can have a high degree of input when deciding the best course of treatment for a patient-a part of the job he finds particularly rewarding.
"There is so much critical thinking involved," he says. "Many MICU patients present with multiple medical conditions, so you have to approach each condition as it relates to and could potentially affect another. The whole thing is like a puzzle."
Aside from his summers as an EMT, he credits the Duquesne University School of Nursing's holistic approach for preparing him to think on his feet in such complex layers, saying the school's style of "treating patients as a whole, rather than just treating their disease" was fundamental to the way he approached patients in the MICU. But he never imagined he would need to rely on that training so soon-and so close to home.
BLESSINGS IN DISGUISE
Shields' personal involvement with a medical event struck once again this last summer, this time affecting a member of his own family.
When coordinating a trip out West to see his grandparents, Shields learned his grandfather had been experiencing cognitive issues, which struck him as odd since his grandfather was typically "sharp as a tack." The sudden lapse in cognition triggered a lesson Shields had learned from his gerontology professor, Dr. Cara Morrill-Stoklosa, who had spent much of the semester stressing that sudden changes in mental function were not a natural part of aging, but could actually be a symptom of something potentially serious.
With that in mind, Shields made all the calls necessary to convince his family that an immediate trip to the ER was a much sounder course of action than waiting two weeks for a doctor's appointment. It turned out his instincts - and education - were right.
An aggressive glioblastoma tumor was discovered in his grandfather's brain that night, and the hospital was able to operate immediately, successfully removing 50 percent of the dangerous growth. Waiting to act, Shields learned, may have given his grandfather perhaps just three months to live.
While the rest of the prognosis remained poor, the swift action that night still worked to brighten the future for Shields and his family. "What that did was buy my grandfather and my family time. More time to spend these last few months together and say our goodbyes," he says.
And for that precious gift, he is grateful for all he has been able to learn over the years-and particularly at Duquesne.
This story first appeared in the 2022 edition of Duquesnes University School of Nursing Magazine. View the Nursing Magazine archive.