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A New Start in a New Country

Apr 11, 2022

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When we call our families, we do not say ‘hi’ anymore. Instead, we start by asking if everyone is alive. When we end our call, we no longer say ‘bye.’ Now we say, ‘Slava Ukraini - Herojam Slava, which means Glory to Ukraine - Glory to Heroes.’

Olena Svetlov

Olena Svetlov has an immense desire to help people. As a clinical nurse specialist (CNS) at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, she believes her work is her calling. And although she’s endured great hardship to find her purpose, she feels every challenge has been for a reason.

Svetlov grew up in the former Soviet Union, in what is now Ukraine, where she earned a Ph.D. in literature and became an associate professor of English as a second language at Kyiv European University. She also had a successful career as a government translator. There was one incident, however, when she was asked by the Soviet government to incorrectly translate information from a key meeting. When she refused to comply, she was threatened and harassed, and sought political asylum in the United States.

Svetlov came to Los Angeles, where her visa sponsor was located; however, the sponsor refused to allow her to stay with their family. “She gave me a blue blanket that I used to sleep in a park until I could find a room for rent,” Svetlov recalled.

Her academic and professional achievements held little relevance in the U.S. After finding work in various restaurant kitchens, Svetlov felt called to enroll in nursing school where she could serve others. She eventually worked her way to become a nurse practitioner (NP) and a beloved instructor for advanced practice nursing students.

Now, after seeing the devastation from the war in her former home in Ukraine, Svetlov says she felt a responsibility to act.

How are you responding to what’s happening in Ukraine?

When the invasion began, I made a video on how to stop the bleeding if someone gets wounded from a weapon or explosion. It was sent to civilians in combat areas and has been viewed thousands of times. I am also working with citizens of Ukraine to translate a quick guide on how to care for the wounded.

Hospitals are being bombed, and doctors and nurses are asking for first-aid items like tourniquets and bandages. I am reaching out to everyone I know to help send over supplies.

Have you been in contact with family in Ukraine?

Yes, my family members are among those who were brutally bombed at the beginning of Russia’s invasion. My husband's family is under occupation, with no access to water, food or electricity.

When we call our families, we do not say “hi” anymore. Instead, we start by asking if everyone is alive. When we end our call, we no longer say “bye.” Now we say, “Slava Ukraini - Herojam Slava, which means Glory to Ukraine - Glory to Heroes.”

You fled your country under different circumstances from what is happening there now. But like many other refugees, you arrived in a new place and had nowhere to go.

I remember I came to Los Angeles decades ago. It was springtime and, at that time of year, it is kind of warm in California. I had the blanket that my sponsor gave me, and I slept outside in a park because I didn’t have enough money for a room. The first thing I did was to call back home to see if anybody had relatives in Los Angeles who could assist me.

I then started looking for jobs anywhere I could. One restaurant said, “OK, can you work for free?” I said, “Yes” and took the job. Growing up in the Soviet Union, my mom and my grandma raised me to know that hard work gets appreciated. For me, it was normal. I mean, I was like, “I've got to find a job, period.”

To get where I am now, I’m so grateful for this country and for all the opportunities that I had. My kids now live in a free country.

During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, you spent a lot of time volunteering to help individuals experiencing homelessness so they could get treatment and vaccinations. Did you feel a certain empathy?

Yes, because I've been in these peoples’ situations, and I understood the fear that many of them would be feeling. What if they got sick but don’t have immigration papers? Where would they go for treatment? Would they get deported?

The moment I heard they were doing something for the homeless population, I said, “Oh my gosh, can I join?”

When they said, “Olena, we’re reaching out to all advanced practice nurses and nurse practitioners, but nobody is available to step in their shoes,” I told them I will do it. I didn’t have any barriers.

When I arrived at the makeshift clinics I began treating patients right away. To help them feel more comfortable, I would say, “I have been here in your situation. I’ve done that.” And they would trust me from then on.

You are an instructor for advanced practice nursing students. What makes a good teacher?

Well, rule number one, I need to be flexible. I really spend time with the students and ask them what they need and what their goals are. I want to make sure they are getting the best experience possible. For example, I had a student who was debating if she wanted to be a CNS or if she wanted to be a nurse practitioner. In the 560 hours that she had with me, I gave her an opportunity to go with an NP on their rounds and also work with a CNS.

At the end of the day, I ask my students, “OK, what's your feedback on me? Did you get what you needed for today? What is working? What is not working?”

It really helps because we’re all different. I value everybody, and I treat everybody like my future boss.

You work in a hospital every day. What is the environment like for nurses right now?

Mental health is big. People are asking for resources about mindfulness and how it can help with their jobs. Nurses also want to be recognized for the work they’re doing. We’re not just the middle people who change patients’ dressings. No, we are the ones who are helping a person to go through this journey, hopefully uneventfully, and get back on their feet and get better.

What is something that people don't necessarily know about nursing that you would want them to know?

Nursing is not a profession. It’s a calling. And everybody who’s wearing this hat is there for you, in the plane, on the road, anywhere.

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