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Building Resilience: NWU Grad Reflects on her Role in Treating Ebola Patients

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Michelle Schwedhelm earned her MSN from NWU in 2007. She was director of the Biocontainment Patient Care Unit when UNMC treated 3 Ebola patients.
Schwedhelm (far right) joins the medical care team at a press conference held when Ebola patient Dr. Richard Sacra was released from the hospital.

Last September the country’s attention turned to Omaha, Nebraska, when the University of Nebraska Medical Center was asked to care for an American doctor who tested positive for the Ebola virus. It was one of a handful of medical facilities in the country designated to treat Ebola patients.

And behind the scenes was Michelle Schwedhelm, director of the Biocontainment Patient Care Unit located inside The Nebraska Medical Center. After years of training for possible Ebola treatment, the situation was real and Schwedhelm was responsible for making sure all plans worked.

“I was in charge of making sure we had all the plans in place for a biological situation, chemical radiation, and mass casualty,” said Schwedhelm, a 2007 graduate of Nebraska Wesleyan’s Master of Nursing degree program. “It was my job to make sure we had all the plans in place to successfully manage those and making sure we had back up plans.”

As a leader of the 10-bed biocontainment unit, Schwedhelm said she felt an overwhelming responsibility to make sure everything ran smoothly and efficiently.

“I felt accountable to assure that everything we’d practiced and prepared for nine years worked,” she said. “That was my biggest role. I oversaw the operations of the unit from both the human resources aspect and the education and training aspect.”

Schwedhelm credits her Nebraska Wesleyan classes for giving her the necessary knowledge and research principles to succeed in her career field.

“It added depth to my knowledge,” Schwedhelm said of her master’s program. “And it gave me a really good sense of research principles which have helped me with my research in the biocontainment unit.”

It was the pursuit of this knowledge that inspired Schwedhelm and her husband to enroll in Nebraska Wesleyan’s MSN program.

“My husband is a nurse too. We are high school sweethearts and have graduated with each other four times now. He said he wanted to go back and get his master’s so I said I’d go back with him,” said Schwedhelm. “Our kids were independent at that time and we could both go back to school and keep our full-time jobs. We just wanted to keep building our foundations of knowledge and education.”

That foundation of knowledge also helped Schwedhelm prepare professionally and personally for situations like caring for three Ebola patients last fall. In her 33 years at UNMC Schwedhelm has worked in a variety of departments and roles from flight nursing to managing the emergency room to her role as the director of the biocontainment unit.

“My whole career I’ve worked in places that are high stress. I’m really attracted to that kind of work,” she said.

Today Schwedhelm has taken on another new role: executive director of emergency preparedness and infection prevention.

“To prepare for situations like the Ebola outbreak is to really build resilience in yourself,” she said. “Try to find balance in your life. Keep building your knowledge, your education, and make sure you have the right people involved with you to help you be successful.”