Nurses could have never predicted the upheaval and disruption that COVID brought to everything they considered normal in their work and personal lives. But for Anthony Pho, PhD, MPH, ANP-C, a Propel¬†postdoctoral scholar for¬†The PRIDE Study at the Stanford University School of Medicine, the pandemic’s chaos brought a real silver lining.

Pho, who worked in New York City in the beginning of the pandemic, says the nursing community and his nursing work gave him a purpose through a distinctly challenging time. “You choose a place and you choose an environment to create the most potential for relationships,” he says. “The people and nurses I met are so phenomenal.” And while the pandemic did bring a fear of an unknown threat, Pho says nurses just did their jobs. “When you sign up for nursing, this is what you sign up for,” he says.

Nursing is Pho’s second career; he was in the software industry for more than a decade. “I didn’t want to do that anymore,” he says. “It was the same plot line and a different cast of characters.” Pho was accepted into the Johns Hopkins School of Nursing accelerated BSN program with the intention of returning to the Bay Area and working as a nurse. “But I met my tribe at Hopkins,” he says, and ended up staying to complete an MSN and an MPH there as well, working as an ED nurse and even working with an emergency medical residency program in Tanzania.

After Hopkins, Pho moved to New York City and became an NP at Weill Cornell Medical while also holding a teaching role. A lifelong advocate for LGBTQ health issues, Pho had a casual conversation with a physician who needed someone to develop the LGBTQ section of a curriculum on vulnerable populations and asked if he was interested. That led to a five-year teaching role at Weill Cornell Medical where he taught the first-ever LGBTQ health curriculum for the internal medicine residency program. In 2017, he left the role to pursue his PhD studies at Columbia University which he completed in 2020.

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The spring of 2020 was a pivotal time for any nursing student, but for one in New York City, it was working in chaos. But for Pho, it totally cemented his dedication to his profession. Pho worked at Callen-Lorde Community Health in New York City, one of the largest providers of LGBTQ health care in that city.

“We staffed one of the convalescent hotels in Queens, and 50 percent of the patients were COVID positive from the shelter system and the remainder symptomatic,.” he says. “During that time I lived in a third-floor walkup in New York City, and I worked from 8 pm to 8 am while working on my dissertation,” recalls Pho, who also serves as a board member for GLMA: Health Professionals Advancing LGBTQ Equality. “Nursing saved me. It was a horrible time, but my queer nurses–we were together all the time. I think about my nurses, my role, my identity, and how it all gave me a purpose. I know it saved me. We were helping save people who society didn’t want to help.”

Through it all–the uncertainty, the lack of solid information, the severe illness of patients–Pho said a guiding principle made all the difference. “I think about being a nurse,” he says, “and a sense of purpose. I knew this is what I was meant to do. It got me up every day.”

Pho says his career has been paved by taking chances and finding opportunity when he could, and making opportunities when he couldn’t. And each task he completed or each chance he took led him to be in the right place at the right time–and with the right skills–to be able to offer the help that was so needed. “You make your own luck,” he says, a lot of which he says is based on the grind of doing the hard work day in and day out. “It’s important that you show up, not because you think it’s good for your career, but because you are truly passionate about it. The rest will follow. You do it because you want to make the queer universe a better place.”

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He remains enthusiastic about nursing and the students who aspire to roles like his. “New grad nurses are so inspiring to me,” he says. One new nurse was having a hard day, Pho says, and he could tell she needed the pep talk he offered. “She said to me, ‘I needed to hear that validation.'” The moment struck a chord for Pho. “I told her, “Don’t think for a minute that I don’t have those days.'” Despite his experience and education, Pho says nurses still sometimes need someone to let you know, yes, you are a nurse and look at all you are doing.

“I started to see my role a little differently,” Pho says. “Sometimes it seems like all the dots seem to connect perfectly, but I’ll tell you it doesn’t feel that way when you’re doing it.” In fact, the way a nursing career progresses is sometimes based on opportunity but, more frequently, it’s something else. “I don’t think it’s predestined,” he says. “You make choices–not right choices and not wrong choices. There’s grace in the work.”

Julia Quinn-Szcesuil
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