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A Whirlwind Final Quarter: From the Front Lines of Covid-19 to Advocating for Essential Workers

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Nicole Militello

Senior Media Relations Specialist

Nicole Militello

Feature  •
Lisa Ward

Lisa Ward never could have anticipated what would be in store for her final quarter of graduate studies at the University of Denver.

Like many graduate students, Ward was working part time while earning her master of science degree in University College’s Health Care Management program. But for Ward, this meant working as a lead emergency medical technician at Denver Health on the frontlines of a pandemic.

“It was crazy,” Ward recalls of the chaos that characterized the past few weeks. “There were four big things I was working on: working in the ER, working to secure a new job, trying to write my capstone and actually running a legislative bill.”

Let’s rewind.

Ward started her master’s program in the summer of 2017 with 25 years of health care work under her belt. She was ready for a career shift and knew the exact position she wanted to land after earning her second degree: lobbyist for Denver Health, advocating on behalf of health care workers for anything they need.

“DU was my first and only choice because of the reputation DU has as an institution and educational learning environment,” Ward says. “I had one goal in mind. That was to be the lobbyist for Denver Health hospital. I knew what I needed to do to get there and what classes I needed to take. DU allowed me that flexibility and trusted my judgment to allow me to do that.”

Ward maximized every opportunity as a student to grow and pursue her goal. She landed a job as the legislative aid to the top-ranking state senator in health care in her second quarter of the program and even took her capstone to the next level. Not only did she complete her paper, but she was also running a legislative bill to require all high school students to learn CPR as a graduation requirement. She secured a Senate sponsor, and now the bill proposal is on hold until the state legislature resumes.

Ward’s advice for future graduate students draws on her experience: “Start making your way toward your goal as soon as you start your academic career. Move forward your goal the whole time while you are in school.”

For Ward, such dedication has paid off. Immediately after wrapping up her final quarter at DU — and just days before Denver Health implemented a hiring freeze — she landed her dream job. 

“It feels good to have accomplished what I set out to do,” Ward says.

And her new position is more important than ever with the world fighting COVID-19.

Lisa Ward
Lisa Ward

“Right now, with a pandemic going on, it’s my responsibility to advocate on behalf of Denver Health for things like PPE for our health care workers,” Ward explains. “Being on the front lines really gives me such a unique perspective to the other side of it. When I listen to the incident command center briefings and they talk about PPE, I know what it feels like to wear an N95 [mask] for 12 hours. I understand how difficult this is emotionally for health care providers.”

The transition to this new role on the front lines of a pandemic was especially challenging. That challenge is captured in a personal essay — titled “Out of the Trenches, Into the War” — Ward shared with the DU Newsroom:  

“Instead of an emotional email about the profound impact the experience has had on my life, my last email explained where to find adult body bags,” Ward writes about her last day working in Denver Health’s emergency department. “Instead of a traditional celebratory potluck, I quickly ate leftovers of food generously donated by the community.  I donned my N95 mask and googles at the beginning of a long 12- hour shift, then carefully doffed them, before clocking out for the last time. I hurried out the back door into the cold night air, by myself, before anyone could see the tears running down my cheeks, reddened and battered by my N95.”

With that difficult goodbye comes hope for the future for Ward. She says she is honored to fight for an organization with a mission that she believes in with heart and soul. She knows she has not abandoned her colleagues in the ER, but is now fighting for their best interests every day when she wakes up and starts work.

“I can clearly visualize what it feels like to be at the bedside of a patient unable to breathe,” Ward writes. “My ears ring with the sounds of ventilator alarms working to aid an intubated patient. I sympathize with exhausted frontline providers who are caring for critically ill patients while worrying about their own safety. For the first time in my long-standing career, I also know what it looks like to see unprecedented desperation on the faces of sick patients and terror in the eyes of my fearless colleagues.”

Now, as she steps up to her next challenge, she will keep her frontline colleagues at the top of her mind.

“My job is on the outside now,” Ward says, “but always, my heart is on the inside.”