In the midst of chaos
In war zones and COVID front lines, Stacey Rokas finds Vanderbilt a lifeline
by Amy Wolf
When U.S. Navy nurse Stacey Rokas, MSN’22, filled out her application to Vanderbilt University School of Nursing, she was in South Korea, embedded with the U.S. Marines on a training exercise with an international joint force. She was the officer in charge of medical care.
“I knew I needed to learn more about emergency medicine to provide better care for the Marine Corps and Navy, but I was wavering on going back to school,” says the nearly 20-year nursing veteran, wife and mother of 10. Rokas almost withdrew her Vanderbilt application, but then fate stepped in.
“In the middle of this remote area, I sat down with a gunnery sergeant, and he had a big Vanderbilt tattoo on his forearm,” she says. “I knew it was a sign.”
Rokas returned from deployment and enrolled in Vanderbilt’s Master of Science in Nursing program to pursue an emergency nurse practitioner specialty. Building on the foundation of the family nurse practitioner specialty, the ENP specialty prepares advanced practice nurses for dual certification to practice in diverse emergency care settings.
In April 2020, the middle of Rokas’ ENP program, the military called her to the front lines again—this time to fight the COVID-19 pandemic in New York City.
“I was deployed with the Navy as a nurse to Elmhurst Hospital in Queens at the height of the pandemic. I had to take care of people on different types of ventilators without staff support, without pharmacy, without respiratory therapy,” Rokas says. “It was truly a mass casualty situation.”
In the early days of the pandemic, Elmhurst was often called “coronavirus ground zero” and was considered the hardest-hit hospital in New York and, possibly, the country.
That’s when Vanderbilt nursing faculty became Rokas’ lifeline to this new and evolving disease.
“Vanderbilt became more than just a school. My teachers and my classmates went above and beyond helping me with everything from literal care questions to sending masks and PPE,” she says. “It’s hard to imagine being in a hospital where there’s nothing to clean anything with or the right gear to properly care for patients.”
Rokas knew she desperately needed more training on ventilators, so she turned to ENP Specialty Director Jennifer Wilbeck, DNP, PMC’06, MSN’99, FAAN, FAANP, and Instructor Susanna Rudy, DNP’17, MSN’14. They provided moral support as well as practical guidance, like sharing modules on ventilator management and up-to-the-minute information on evolving emergency care protocols for COVID patients.
“In our program, we teach this transition from emergency medicine to critical care, which was essential during Stacey’s work with critically ill COVID patients,” Rudy says.
Compassion is what started me on the journey of being a nurse, and it’s essential for everyone in health care. Nursing is one of the toughest jobs, but it’s a calling.” —Stacey Rokas
Rudy became a lifeline in person during Rokas’ deployment at Elmhurst. The ENP instructor traveled to New York City on behalf of the Federal Emergency Management Agency to manage out-of-state ambulances that had volunteered to come to the front lines. The two bonded over their shared experiences.
“Not feeling alone in that situation was really everything because I had people to reach out to. It truly showed the character of my teachers and classmates, and I am forever grateful,” Rokas says.
Rising to the Challenge
Even before her deployment, hospitals took note of Rokas’ stellar abilities under pressure.
Rokas was doing clinicals at Baptist Memphis and handling COVID triage calls early in the pandemic. “On one particular triage call, Stacey was able to identify respiratory distress in a caller over the phone and direct the patient to further emergency care. The leaders of that center were impressed with her ability to function at that level in such a chaotic environment,” Wilbeck says. “The pandemic showcased in many ways why the ENP role is so critically important in providing frontline health care resources—and how this niche is especially useful in a pandemic.”
“Vanderbilt has consistently been at the forefront of emergency nurse practitioner programs,” she says. “We have a uniquely streamlined educational approach where students first become family nurse practitioners to provide them primary care expertise. Then we layer on emergency education, which provides higher complexity specialty care.”
When Rokas returned from COVID duty, she was able to complete Vanderbilt’s rigorous program with new expertise in her nursing toolbox. Her deployment meant that she couldn’t graduate with her original cohort, but her classmates cheered her on as she finished a year later than they did.
“I love being an emergency nurse, and I wanted a master’s program that challenged me and pushed me beyond what I had learned in my years of practice, which Vanderbilt definitely did,” Rokas says. “But the pandemic taught me that there’s still a lot that we don’t know.”
In the midst of the COVID pandemic and school, Rokas’ personal life also changed. She married her fiancé, Bill, after returning from deployment in New York, creating a blended family with her eight children and his two. Following their mother’s example, several of Rokas’ children are serving in the military.
The family lives near Memphis, Tennessee, where Rokas works in emergency care and is a lieutenant commander in the Navy Reserve. She also plans to work with a health care program that aids the homeless population.
“Compassion is what started me on the journey of being a nurse, and it’s essential for everyone in health care,” she says. “Nursing is one of the toughest jobs, but it’s a calling.”