For Krista Tkacz ’09, earning her Master of Science in Nursing in April and becoming a Board-certified Adult–Gerontology Primary Care Nurse Practitioner in June demanded the strength, resilience and humility that embodies a true Pioneer.
“It’s been a long road but I am just so relieved to be where I am now. The fact that I just graduated, I feel like I can finally breathe again. The whole journey — taking time off and then going back to school. This whole year has been so overwhelming and anxiety-ridden.”
Coming to Marietta from her hometown in New Jersey, Krista majored in Journalism, though her focus, she admitted, was rowing.
“Being a leader on a team helped develop who I am. Even though my degree is in Journalism, a lot of what I think about when I think about Marietta is the rowing team. There is a lot of history with crew at Marietta and I think being on the team helped me develop a strong work ethic. I think I had it, but I think being a leader on crew really helped me develop into this person who can physically and emotionally push through things the way that I can now.”
It turns out, Krista would need every bit of that inner strength and toughness in the coming years.
After graduating from Marietta, Krista took a position as an AmeriCorps VISTA before making the decision to pursue a different career: to become a nurse practitioner. Her mother is a nurse midwife/women’s health nurse practitioner who delivers babies in the Atlantic City area, and also does GYN/OB appointments.
Once Krista decided to change career paths, she moved back to New Jersey to begin schooling as a nurse, eventually working on her master’s degree to become an Adult-Gerontology Primary Care Nurse Practitioner through Monmouth University. Initially she worked in the heart of Philadelphia in the Surgery and Trauma Intensive Care Unit at Hahnemann University Hospital — where she honed her skills that helped turn her into the nurse she is today.
“I saw victims of gun shootings, stabbings, gang violence, car accidents, patients suffering from severe mental illness and homelessness, victims of random violence, suicide attempts, as well as patients who required heart surgery, liver and/or kidney transplants, extensive traumatic orthopedic surgery, sex change surgery, and the list goes on.”
After Hahnemann closed, she accepted a position in the Cardiothoracic Surgery Intensive Care Unit at Lankenau Medical Center in Wynnewood, Pennsylvania, where she currently works, and also continued her graduate studies.
“I started this position in February 2020, and I remember being told about a virus on the rise and needing to start wearing masks at all times,” she says. “I remember thinking that this would be over in a few months, and that it couldn’t possibly be that serious. Before I knew it, everyone was mandated to stay home, and here I was, driving back and forth to work and clinical every single day.”
The cardiothoracic surgeons made it a priority to keep COVID-19 patients as far away as possible from heart surgery patients, but Krista’s clinical capacity for graduate school required her to be on the front lines of the pandemic fight, garbed in full PPE, frequently testing sick patients for COVID and seeing patients in the office for primary care visits and gynecology appointments. Her clinical component for graduate school took place in various locations in the Atlantic City area, and included many vulnerable populations.
After working a gynecologic shift in November 2020, Krista developed a very mild cough, which she initially thought was caused by the change in weather. The next day, she felt like she had run a marathon — the exhaustion and cough were tell-tale signs. She had COVID-19, and things were going to get worse.
“At this point, I wasn’t worried because I am generally a healthy person. With the exception of some depression and anxiety, along with gaining some weight due to the stress of being in school and working the front lines during a pandemic, I thought I’d be able to ride out the virus at home and be back to work and school in a week.”
The day after her diagnosis was confirmed, she noticed her cherished dog, Lola — a 9-year-old pitbull — was in pain and refusing to eat. Krista contacted the local emergency veterinary clinic, explained that she was battling COVID-19 but her dog was in need of immediate care. That night, she learned Lola had a large, malignant tumor that was bleeding into her abdomen. Rather than subject her to surgery and aggressive chemotherapy that would, at best, extend her survival to six months, Krista brought her dog home.
“I took this as a sign that I had been blessed to be diagnosed with COVID and that I could spend the next few days managing Lola’s pain and spending as much time with her as possible. Two days later, I was able to have Lola humanely euthanized, and my heart was completely crushed.”
Within 24 hours, Krista’s temperature spiked and more serious symptoms started to emerge. Her parents and friends volunteered to drive her to the hospital, but rather than risk exposing them to an illness that was now causing her to have an erratic, high heart rate and a blue rash across her chest, she drove herself.
“At the hospital, the doctor ordered a CT scan to rule out a pulmonary embolism, and while I did not have a blood clot, I was found to have extensive bilateral bacterial pneumonia. This was initially missed by the physician, who simply told me that I did not have a blood clot and that I could go home.”
Though it took three weeks to recover and return to work and school, COVID wasn’t finished with her. Brain fog, severe anxiety, chest pain and depression set in as Krista worked and completed her required clinical hours.
“It was truly embarrassing at times. I would do clinical with my nurse practitioner preceptor and she would ask, ‘can you go in and do that GYN exam,’ and I would be crying and say, ‘I guess I can.” I was crying for no reason at all. I had this unfounded anxiety over nothing.”
It took time, the COVID-19 vaccine and plenty of help from people in her life to create a bridge to a normal, healthy life for Krista.
“I kept fighting, and if it wasn’t for the love, support, and acceptance from my family and friends, I don’t think I would have been able to get through this time in my life.”
In May, she graduated from Monmouth University’s program. Within a few weeks, she successfully sat for her Board exam, finally reaching her goal of becoming a nurse practitioner.
“It’s not just about hard work. It’s about everything else that happens in the process. It’s about finishing.”