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Health care administration grad finds passion, career path at UW-Eau Claire

| Julie Poquette

Brendan Riordan started his University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire experience as a 21-year-old freshman who was undecided about a major.

This month, with a few extra challenges thrown his way by COVID-19, he completes his degree in a field he is passionate about and begins a new job with a year of paid experience already under his belt.

Riordan, a health care administration major from Downers Grove, Illinois, was recruited to play hockey at UW-Eau Claire and decided to enroll after a visit during which he “fell in love with the campus, river, Water Street and future opportunities.”

“I actually came in as undecided, but knew that I wanted to do something different, something out of the ordinary,” Riordan says. “I had always had an interest in business but knew I didn't want to sit in an office or be in a traditional office setting. I had a friend whose dad was the administrator of a hospital, and I enjoyed the insight he had given me and thought it would be something I’d be interested in. It sort of was a lucky pick.”

“Lucky” is an interesting word choice, given the U.S. arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic during the final months of Riordan’s yearlong health care administration practicum at Alden Terrace of McHenry, a care facility in northern Illinois.

The practicum, which is a paid experience, is an integral part of UW-Eau Claire’s health care administration program, allowing students to apply skills and classroom knowledge as part of a leadership team at a long-term care facility. During the practicum, students gain a firsthand understanding of the day-to-day operations and management of the facility where they are placed.

“COVID-19 has greatly impacted my practicum experience, but it has been an incredible learning opportunity,” Riordan says. “The somewhat ‘crisis’ mode the industry and world has gone into directly impacts the facilities my peers and I are working in. I’ve had to fill in job roles and do tasks I’m not familiar with, such as cooking for 160, cleaning floors and helping with room changes. However, I feel the pandemic has only amplified my passion for the work I do.”

Riordan’s responsibilities during the final eight to ten weeks of his practicum have shifted to meeting the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The pandemic has hit home for me, as we fight it every day in our facility,” Riordan says.

The protocols Riordan helped set in place will sound familiar to those with friends or family members who live in long-term care facilities. First came the restriction of visitors, and the decision to allow only employees and essential medical personnel into the facility. Other precautions have included checking temperatures and conducting full COVID-19 screenings of those who enter, and requiring that masks be worn by all employees and medical personnel. Residents have not been allowed to dine together or participate in group activities, and they must stay in their rooms as much as possible to limit the potential spread of the virus.

Despite the precautions, individuals in the building did contract the virus — including Riordan, who was required to follow quarantine protocols at his family home before returning to work once his symptoms passed and he met the requirements of the facility's return-to-work policy.

Riordan's family felt another, even more difficult impact of the pandemic, however.

"We lost my grandma to the virus while she resided on the memory care unit of a nursing facility like mine," he says.

At Alden Terrace, residents who have contracted COVID-19 have been moved to a separate unit for treatment to keep the rest of the facility’s vulnerable population safe, Riordan says. Nurse practitioners are stationed in the building to provide additional support to the facility's nurses and to communicate with physicians on patients' conditions and needs. COVID-19 patients also have telehealth visits with physicians and specialists.

“This has been challenging, as these residents miss their families, friends and peers in the building,” Riordan says. “The biggest focus for us is ensuring we are keeping families in touch with their loved ones during this pandemic and restriction. The families are the biggest supporters for residents, so it’s been a difficult time for both parties.”

The number of Alden Terrace residents affected by COVID-19 has decreased as the facility has continued to follow Centers for Disease Control and public health guidelines and implemented best practices that have been successful at other facilities.

“Through all of the changes, new findings and difficult days, we’ve ensured our residents are receiving the care they need and deserve,” Riordan says.

Pre-pandemic, Riordan was able to lead projects at Alden Terrace as a way to develop leadership and management skills. One project was to bolster the success of the organization's recruitment efforts, including improvements to the company's presence on the popular job website Indeed.

"We hope the page helps attract people who are seeking an employer that promotes, supports and is willing to pay for employees to further their education and career," Riordan says. "I also had the opportunity to present the idea at a company leadership meeting. This project made me get creative on how to try and find quality employees who have a lot of other opportunities, and it forced me to quickly not be terrified of public speaking."

Riordan has been offered and accepted full-time employment at Alden Terrace at the end of his practicum. As he completes his Blugold degree, he will launch his health care administration career as the facility’s assistant administrator.

“I'm glad I'll be able to continue helping to fight this virus and continue the great relationships I have with my residents, families and staff,” Riordan says.

Riordan says becoming a Blugold allowed him to discover his future path.

“I had come to school to play hockey and have fun as a 21-year-old freshman,” he says. “However, I developed a new passion at UW-Eau Claire that I'm excited to now begin a career in.”

Photo caption: Brendan Riordan started his UW-Eau Claire experience as a 21-year-old freshman who was undecided about a major. This month he completes his degree in a field he is passionate about and begins a new job with a year of paid experience under his belt.