By Caitlin Clark and Megan Hinners
Andrew O’Donnell inherited two things from his family: a love for the University of Wisconsin–Madison and a passion for helping others.
While O’Donnell grew up in the Twin Cities, he was born and raised a Badger. His parents, grandparents, and wife are all UW alumni. His mother, Lori Padgham O’Donnell ’83, and his wife, Keeley Houlahan O’Donnell ’14, are both School of Nursing alumnae. After completing his own bachelor’s degree in nursing, coming back to UW for his doctor of nursing practice (DNP) degree was an easy choice. “I feel incredibly fortunate to have a world-class university and nationally recognized DNP program in my backyard,” says O’Donnell. “The DNP program at UW is unmatched in its value when compared to other programs around the country.”
Similarly, O’Donnell credits his family as the guiding light for his career. His mother’s career as a nurse started him on his own career path. His father, Dennis O’Donnell, also spent his career in a variety of health professions, including physical therapy, hospital administration, and digital health. “My parents set the example for me when it comes to the foundational competencies of nursing: compassion, respect, empathy, advocacy, and determination,” says O’Donnell. He adds, “My wife [Keeley] is also a nurse and most definitely my smarter and more compassionate half. She challenges me to be a better nurse leader and human being.”
Nowadays, O’Donnell is working on the front lines of COVID-19 as the interim co-manager of the Trauma Life Support Center (TLC), a 24-bed medical/surgical intensive care unit (ICU) at UW Health. This unit was designated as the COVID-19 ICU in March, and his team was tasked with leading the ICU-level preparation for managing the pandemic in the community. In a very short period, they expanded their ICU capacity, trained staff to care for COVID-19 patients, and implemented new systems and protocols to meet an unprecedented demand for ICU-level care. His primary responsibility is to support a staff of 120 employees, including 90 ICU nurses. He works closely with an interdisciplinary group of physician, nursing, pharmacy, and respiratory therapy leaders to support daily ICU operations; identify, triage, and address opportunities for improvement; and support frontline workers caring for patients and families.
“UW Health and our ICU team’s response has been nothing short of remarkable,” says O’Donnell. “What has been most inspiring is the response I’ve seen from frontline staff. This international pandemic has brought anxiety, fear, and uncertainty about our future. It has challenged our health care system like never seen before in my lifetime. I have witnessed incredible teamwork, innovation, and bravery from the frontlines. We’ve had an overwhelming response from current and former ICU nurses asking, ‘How can I help the team? What can I contribute as we weather this storm together?’ Additionally, it has been inspiring to see the outpouring of support from our community. Everyone is rallying around our health care heroes to fight this virus and keep our community healthy and thriving.”
Prior to this role, O’Donnell worked at the bedside as an ICU nurse in the TLC for five years, and then as a program manager of the Critical Care Nurse Communicator Program for three years, a program O’Donnell and April Buffo ’09, DNP’20, designed and implemented at UW Health in 2017.
As Florence Nightingale observed, “Apprehension, uncertainty, waiting, expectation, fear of surprise, do a patient more harm than any exertion.” O’Donnell, Buffo, and their colleagues observed that poor communication, inadequate emotional support, and a failure to focus on the patient’s goals, values, and treatment preferences lead to excessive use of life sustaining therapies at the end of life.
“ICU patients are often incapacitated and unable to make their health care decisions known. Subsequently, surrogate decision makers are often required to make complex, high stakes, end-of-life decisions for their loved one under immense stress,” says O’Donnell.
“Additionally, evidence suggests that communication between patients, families, and clinicians in the ICU is often delayed and inefficient, coupled with frequent missed opportunities to support the emotional needs of surrogates, particularly at the end of life.” The Critical Care Nurse Communicator Program aims to tackle these issues head-on by having two palliative-trained critical care nurses work as patient and family navigators to support the informational, emotional, and spiritual needs of patients and families.
“It is this intimate knowledge of the patient and family experience that makes nursing leaders dynamic, innovative, and absolutely vital to designing effective and sustainable solutions.” —Andrew O’Donnell’11, DNP’14
Whether running a COVID-19 ICU unit or leading an interdisciplinary team of health professionals to improve systems and quality of care, O’Donnell says his training as a nurse has been an asset: “Nurses bring a special set of skills to the table. We have developed our skills closer to the bedside, the patient, the family than most health professionals. This experience provides a perspective few other health care leaders have. It is this intimate knowledge of the patient and family experience that makes nursing leaders dynamic, innovative, and absolutely vital to designing effective and sustainable solutions.”