HAMILTON, NJ – It’s not the reunion that ever could have been imagined for Mercer County Community College (MCCC) Nursing Professor Lisa Dunn and five of her former students. Teacher and pupils alike are now working side-by-side, as colleagues and peers, in the Intensive Care Unit of Robert Wood Johnson-Hamilton Hospital, united in the battle against the coronavirus pandemic.

For the recent Nursing graduates, it is an extraordinary situation where their years of training and study come together to a central focus, aiming to provide comfort and care to those who need it most. For Dunn, a critical care nurse for 28 years, it’s a return to hands-on work in a profession she loves, and a rare opportunity to work with nurses she has trained and to see how they have grown as medical professionals.

“I love working in the field with graduates because I know how they were trained, and what they learned,” Dunn said. “Mercer County Community College's nursing program has a rigorous curriculum that has high standards. I'm so proud to see them in action and knowing I had a part in their ability, and confidence, in being a nurse, especially during these trying times.”

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Among her former students – now colleagues – in the RWJ-Hamilton ICU are Hamilton residents Brittany Gonzalez, Joe Johnson, Crystal Dixon and Heidy Grullon, along with Pennington resident Matthew Piamonte. All made an impression in class, Dunn said, and continue to impress as critical care nurses.

“These nurses are now taking care of the sickest patients in the hospital, and it is an honor to be working side-by-side with them,” Dunn said.

As healthcare professionals ramping up in their new careers, none of them could have ever imagined working under current-day circumstances, replete with long hours, desperate patients, and new cases coming in daily. While all agree that Nursing school was tough, it’s nothing compared to the rigors of a pandemic ICU.

“Not even in my wildest dreams have I ever imagined working in this type of situation so early in my nursing career,” said Grullon, a 2018 Mercer graduate. “The program at Mercer, I feel, prepared me for this. It was not easy, but we went through many situations I would encounter in my field, and for many situations I have yet to experience.”

For Dixon, a 2018 graduate who earned her Bachelor of Science in Nursing from Rutgers this past December, the experience has been almost surreal, requiring her to draw not only on her training, but on the strength and support of her colleagues. That, she said, was an important part of her Nursing education – picking each other up, and succeeding together as one.

“The pandemic is awful. We are losing people every day,” Dixon said during the height of the battle against COVID-19. “We are fighting so hard for them. All the hospital employees are all leaning on each other through this, but we are fighting this uphill battle together.”

All four of the Mercer grads were former students of Dunn, and each echoed the importance of her instruction in critical care during their final semester in the Nursing program. Piamonte, a 2019 graduate, said it was an invaluable part of his education – and that education continues.

“At first you feel overwhelmed and lost in a sea of chaos, but taking things one step at a time you slowly find your way,” Piamonte said. “I never imagined having to work in this type of situation, but I have made the best of it and tried to learn from every opportunity.

“Our final semester at Mercer revolved around critical care, so I have been able to apply a lot of that knowledge to the work I am currently doing. I still have a lot to learn, but my education at Mercer definitely gave me a good foundation to build upon.”

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