Alumna Takes Command in the Front-Line Battle Against COVID-19

Three smiling women pose for camera

The phrase “having a lot on your plate” takes on a special brand of irony for LeighAnn Sidone, vice president and chief nursing officer (CNO) at Suburban Hospital in Bethesda, Md., part of the Johns Hopkins Health System Corporation.

Early last spring, Sidone was immersed in numerous hospital projects that included obtaining magnet certification from the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC) and building a new 108-bed patient tower at the regional community hospital and trauma center serving Montgomery County in Maryland.

At the same time, she was completing her Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) project and manuscript for Duquesne’s online DNP program.

Like communities everywhere, COVID-19 descended on Montgomery County quickly and with unanticipated ferocity, forcing hospital administrators and caregivers to quickly prepare and respond to the influx of patients and the attendant health risks the virus posed to health care workers.

“We were in the process of moving patients into our new building when we got our first two COVID-19 cases,” she recalls. “The team orchestrating the patient move was the same team leading our pandemic response just as things were erupting.”

Suburban’s performance testifies to the dedication of its clinical and operations support staff and to the leadership administrators like Sidone, who oversaw the response. In the space of just six weeks, the hospital created and opened five dedicated nursing units to accommodate the influx of COVID-19 patients, and served more than 80 patients at the pandemic’s peak. Sidone says the adversity they faced brought out the very best in the hospital’s staff, especially in the nurses working on the front lines.

“The months since those first cases included many moments that were heartbreaking because we lost patients and because of the stress and fear they and our staff were constantly under,” she says. “But it also was inspirational in so many ways. Our people responded heroically. We developed and then executed our disaster preparedness plan flawlessly. We worked with our colleagues across Johns Hopkins Medicine to create and implement new protocols and to maintain the required levels of PPE needed. Our nurses stepped up to learn new skills and serve patients despite the uncertainty and personal risks. All of us were in it together and focused on our patients. Our staff’s bravery was inspiring.”

Taking the Lead

Fear and uncertainty were constants in the early weeks as the number of cases spiraled. Leading by example was a key to building the staff’s confidence and the teamwork needed to confront the virus.

“We were intentional about which unit and staff would care for our first influx of patients considering environmental capabilities, such as negative pressure, and the clinical needs of the patients,” she says. “However, there were many unknowns and the day it opened and the staff took their first patients, you could see their fear. But the leaders in that unit made a very important decision in that moment, to step up and take care of the first COVID-19 patients alongside their staff. When the staff saw that, they realized they could do it, too.”

Sidone’s leadership and the hospital’s dedication to the community were recognized by the Montgomery County Council, which named her one of the county’s Healthcare Heroes, honoring citizens who went above and beyond during the pandemic.

“Sidone truly is a hero of heroes, our nurses,” the commissioners’ citation reads. “We owe them a debt of gratitude for risking their lives in order to save ours.”

“I learned much about supporting all of our staff, both clinical and non-clinical, and helping them build the resiliency this requires,” she says. “Rounding the units and talking with staff gave me insight and reflection into my own fears and coping abilities.”

Resilience and Encouragement

Sidone’s ability to finish her DNP Practice project in the midst of this crisis speaks volumes about her drive and focus. She also credits the flexibility of Duquesne’s online DNP program with enabling her to complete her degree.

“I am a Pittsburgher at heart and my parents still live there, so I wanted to look at schools there,” she says. Duquesne’s long history in online nursing education and the distance learning option helped seal her decision. “Duquesne made enrollment and onboarding easy. They reached out frequently to maintain contact and helped me set up a program that was doable for someone with a full-time job.

“Even more important, my instructors know what it is like to juggle a job and school, and were very supportive,” she adds. “They realized what I was doing at the same time and how much that work mattered. They went out of their way to help me complete my coursework particularly in the throes of a pandemic.”

Sidone’s leadership and commitment to the nursing profession shone through and was noted by Clinical Assistant Nursing Professor Mary Kay Loughran. “As a DNP student in my class, LeighAnn would regularly share perspectives with the cohort that embodied leadership,” says Loughran. “Her real-life experiences – from being a CNO to obtaining magnet status for her organization to designing and opening a new 108-bed addition – made the content being discussed come to life. She is a strong leader. She was admired by her cohort and is admired and loved by her colleagues at Suburban Hospital.”

Sidone also leads by example and points out that she gained her insights on nursing and on leadership by touching every rung on the career ladder. She began as a nursing assistant at Suburban Hospital while earning her BSN degree at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. She worked for two years at Allegheny General Hospital in Pittsburgh after graduation. During her 25 years with Suburban Hospital, she served as a nurse on the oncology floor before stepping up to the manager role then director’s position, while also obtaining a master’s degree from Loyola University New Orleans. She then moved into the associate chief nursing officer and director of professional practice role, where she had oversight into the development and implementation of programs to establish nursing quality standards and nursing governance required for magnet status from the ANCC. Sidone moved into the chief nursing officer/vice president of nursing role four years ago and is also currently assuming the interim president role.

Recently, Sidone volunteered to do a presentation on her leadership role and experiences during COVID-19 for Duquesne University’s DNP Practicum II students.

“The students loved it,” says Loughran. “She tied in her DNP education to show how it supported her abilities to do the work that was required. Mentoring is important in nursing and at Duquesne, and Sidone exemplifies that.”

“I’ve had the very rare good fortune to move along this path with the same organization, and have the chance to work as a nursing assistant, a floor nurse, director and then executive,” Sidone says. “To lead effectively, I need to know as much as I can about the roles I oversee, what the jobs feel like and what our nurses go through. That understanding is important when I have people to support and lead.”

DNP Project: Developing a Patient Experience Simulation Program Focused on Bedside Shift Report and Hourly Rounding: Impact on Patient and Staff Outcomes

The DNP project is a pivotal accomplishment for nurses that tackles real world problems based on their own clinical experience. LeighAnn Sidone’s goal as she developed her DNP project was to identify factors that contribute to patient falls in her hospital, where she serves as vice president of nursing and chief nursing officer. Falls pose a significant injury risk for patients that can extend their hospital stay. Hospitals also incur significant penalties in their reimbursements from Medicare if these events occur frequently. A thorough literature review found that communication gaps between nurses at the time of shift change can contribute significantly to patient falls. It was found that bedside shift report and hourly rounding were practices that would improve patient experience and reduce falls and call bell volumes.

Sidone developed an hour-long simulation program for RNs and patient care technicians. The program provided each participant the opportunity to step into a patient’s bed to both see and feel what it is like to experience care delivery from a patient’s perspective. The program was developed in collaboration with nursing unit leadership and front-line staff nurses to help contribute to the key program objectives as well as identify factors on the nursing unit that contributed to patient falls. These nurses were integral in the creation of a patient experience simulation program that focused on bedside shift report and hourly rounding as well as enhancing staff empathy for patient needs.

Outcomes were measured both pre- and post- program and showed a decrease in call bell volume, improvement in individual staff empathy scores, improvement in patient experience and a decrease in patient falls. 

This article has been reprinted from Nursing Magazine, Vol. 6.

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