Joining battle-worn COVID vaccine brigade empowers fledgling nurse

Friday, April 30, 2021 2:31 PM

STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. — Kenny A. Villatoro had seen the darkest side of the pandemic, so he jumped at the chance to head toward the light.

As a personal care aide, Villatoro saw first denial, then terror and hopelessness in the eyes of the patients he treated in the Critical Care COVID Unit of Staten Island University Hospital during the first agonizing months of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, all while he pursued his nursing degree.

He even caught and battled the virus himself.

Then, after graduating from the St. Paul’s School of Nursing — and just days after passing his nursing boards — he began vaccinating people against the virus.

“I wanted the other perspective of it,’' he said. “Not just doing CPR on a patient that needed it, but also looking at it from the other spectrum, knowing we can get ahead of this virus — not allow them to get to the point where they have to experience that.”

Villatoro, a Brooklyn resident, is one of 20 August 2020 graduates of the Bloomfield nursing school, formerly St. Vincent’s School of Nursing, to jump right into the prevention effort by joining COVID-19 vaccine teams.

“I needed to be a part of this movement,’' he said. “While it’s not the best of circumstances, we are part of history.’'

David Smith, president of the nursing school, said he couldn’t be more proud of his graduates, who’ve stepped up to fill the need in vaccine distribution before they received their nursing licenses. Once they pass the exams, nursing job placement is almost instantaneous, he said, and the jobs are anything but glamourous.

“They’re on the front lines,’' Smith said. “They’re the ones that are saving lives.”
Villatoro, 37, has five years of healthcare experience. Having survived COVID himself empowered him to better care for the frightened patients who might have otherwise given up, he said.

“It gave me a better understanding of how to motivate patients,’' he said. “They needed the motivation to know that there was a light at the end of the tunnel. What they’re feeling in the moment, they feel like that’s forever.’'

While continuing to care for COVID patients as a SIUH nurse, he delivers vaccines for Affiliated Physicians in Brooklyn and the Bronx during several long shifts each week. He estimated that he’s so far delivered more than 1,400 of the city’s more than 7 million vaccines.

“Though it’s a small impact, I really feel like I’m making a difference,’' he said. “It’s my purpose.’'

He’s passionate about both jobs. And he has no plans to stop either any time soon.

Smith says he’s amazed that his school’s enrollment didn’t drop when COVID hit Staten Island so hard. “Let’s face it, it’s scary,” he said. “It amazed me that we didn’t have a mass flee. Staten Island was particularly hard hit. So, the fact that my students were staying in the program, were getting their licenses and putting themselves on the front line. How could I feel anything but pride?”

Villatoro says joining the vaccination effort is rewarding. The patients who line up to be vaccinated have a positive, enthusiastic outlook — and it’s contagious, he said.

“Most people come in with this attitude of ‘yes, we’re finally here,’’' he said. “I think that’s what’s most impactful. People have been waiting in the dark for this. Now, they get to come into the light.’'