New path puts Affini on nursing frontlines

By Justin Lafleur - Lehigh University Sports Communications

New graduates are typically discouraged from jumping right into the intensive care unit due to the fast-paced, intense environment.

But that didn’t phase Amina Affini, a cardiac ICU nurse ever since graduating from nursing school.

“I’ve always wanted a challenge,” said Affini, a 2012 graduate of Wilmington High School. “I believe that stems from my basketball career. I’ve always loved a challenge and knew the ICU was very challenging. A lot of nursing is critical thinking, trying to connect the dots and the puzzle pieces. Your patient is like a giant puzzle – trying to figure out their presenting symptoms and what’s going on with them – all under pressure situations.”

Pressure situations are nothing new to Affini, dating back to her time on the Lehigh women’s basketball team. Since graduating nursing school at Kettering College in Ohio, the 2016 Lehigh University alumna has worked at Kettering Health Network.

Affini graduated Lehigh as a sociology/social psychology major and health, medicine and society minor, but nursing was in the back of her mind dating back to high school.

“When I was being recruited for basketball, I told colleges I wanted to be a nurse, but was finding out that either the school didn’t have a nursing program or, if they did, it would be too difficult,” said Affini. “Division I basketball and nursing school are both very time consuming.”

Lehigh doesn’t have a nursing major, but her time in Bethlehem, Pa. still played an important role in Affini’s future. Little did she know that while at Lehigh, she was building a foundation that would lead to success as a nurse.

“Lehigh presented Amina plenty of challenges as they related to her academic studies, her basketball regimen and adjusting to a new social environment,” said Lehigh head coach Sue Troyan. “She tackled each challenge with a commitment to learn, a commitment to get better and improve, and a commitment to be her personal best. That mindset allowed her to overcome the challenges and thrive in Lehigh’s environment.”

It wasn’t until the beginning of Affini’s senior year that nursing began popping back into her head.

“I was starting to look at graduate school to get my master’s of public health,” she said. “But one day, I literally had a moment when I thought this wasn’t what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.

“I had been lying to myself just trying to make it easier,” Affini continued. “One day my senior year, I talked to my mom, who said if I wanted to do nursing school, I might as well go for it while I’m young, do what I have a passion for.

“Right then and there, I decided I was going to nursing school.”

Kettering College is located just south of Dayton and a short drive from Wilmington. She enrolled in a four-year bachelor’s program condensed into three.

“A number of my credits from Lehigh transferred over,” said Affini. “The first year was all about my prerequisites, then my last two years featured my nursing classes. It was essentially four years of nursing crammed into two.”

Affini graduated in May, 2019 and began at Kettering Health Network in August.

“My ICU is the coronary care ICU, so we deal with a lot of cardiac arrests, but we also see a wide range of other cardiac issues and illnesses as well,” she said.

A new illness, COVID-19, recently forced Affinini into a different ICU wing for several weeks.

“We have four total ICUs – two cardiac ICUs, a surgical ICU and a trauma ICU,” she said. “My hospital actually created a fifth ICU called Area 19. It’s all COVID patients, but a mix between ICU and non ICU COVID patients. I’ve spent some of my time there, especially when the pandemic first hit. I was there for probably a good month and a half straight.”

The experience working in the unit provided indescribable perspective, which non-medical professionals couldn’t even imagine

“One of my biggest challenges was knowing that our time is not promised on this earth,” said Affini. “A lot of people affected by COVID-19 are completely healthy with no other comorbidities or health problems. That has really opened all our eyes. Nobody is discriminated against with this disease and for me, it’s really hit home and made me appreciate my health and my family even more.”

Affini’s passion for what she does has brought her back to work every day, despite obvious fears being on the frontlines.

“I was afraid,” she said. “Am I going to get it myself? Am I going to bring this home to my family? It’s the unknown… afraid of what’s going to happen next.

“Here in Ohio, we were very lucky. Our governor shut down quickly, so we weren’t hit nearly as hard as other places. But still, there was so much unknown.”

The pandemic has slowly gotten better in this country, including for Affini, who has returned to her role in the cardiac ICU. With all the unknowns still remaining surrounding COVID-19, one known for Affini is the whole-person care she gets to provide in the ICU.

“You don’t have aids and you don’t have helpers,” she said. “As a nurse, you’re doing everything for your patient and that’s what I wanted. I’m not saying floor nurses don’t get to do that, but with the ICU, you have fewer patients who you get to spend more time with. It’s accompanied by this intense environment – testing myself, pressuring myself and putting myself in uncomfortable situations.”

Uncomfortable situations aren’t new for Affini, who made an uncomfortable decision to travel nine hours from Ohio to attend Lehigh.

“Lehigh definitely helped me mature a ton,” said Affini. “The time management – from being a student-athlete, traveling a lot and making sure my work got done – has tremendously helped me to this day. I wouldn’t have been able to make it through a rigorous nursing school if I hadn’t been through Lehigh first.”

It’s clear Affini is at her best when challenged.

“Lehigh taught me how to balance responsibilities, which I will forever be grateful for,” she said. “Through opportunities like the Student-Athlete Mentor program, Lehigh did a great job of pushing for strong relationships and good communication through those relationships. In my job now, I’m talking to patients and their families, doctors and a bunch of different people in the multidisciplinary team. I need to have good communication skills.”

Other people Affini interacts with are her colleagues, who play an important part in helping her push through difficult times.

“There have been many times when I’ve wanted to quit because it’s so hard mentally, but my coworkers are so encouraging,” she said. “You’re never alone. You always have help. I always tell people that our ICU is 12 beds and you get one or two patients, but essentially, you have 12 patients because we’re all helping each other with everything.”

Affini learned a number of essential skills at Kettering College, which are crucial for her nursing job today.

But don’t discount the impact of her Lehigh student-athlete experience.

“The Lehigh athletics experience was a springboard for Amina’s personal development and growth during her four years,” said Troyan. “She learned so many valuable lessons about working hard, balancing time, building relationships, being a team player, developing into a leader and persevering through challenging times.”

As a student-athlete, Affini learned how to tackle challenges and work through the ups and downs each day would bring.

Today, she is putting those skills to work in a pressure-filled role.

“It can be hard since it’s not always the most positive situations,” said Affini. “But the most gratifying aspect of my job is seeing people make it out who you never thought in a million years would.

“The pandemic has brought that a lot more, and given me a lot of admiration for my job.”

Affini’s path to her job was far from typical, and she’s reached this point due to a thirst and hunger for the next challenge.

She may not be done tackling challenges just yet.

“I’m in a good spot right now, but if I want to go back to school in the coming years, I’m in a great position to do so,” said Affini.

Affini listened to her mother’s advice and followed her passion. Because of it, she’s very happy… and thriving.

The medical field is better off for it.

“I went into nursing school wanting to work with kids,” said Affini. “I went in telling myself I didn’t want to work cardiac because it’s so complex and so hard.

“Now, here I am an adult cardiac ICU nurse.

“It’s funny how things works out, but I love it.”

By Justin Lafleur

Lehigh University Sports Communications

Justin Lafleur is a senior assistant director of sports communications at Lehigh University.

Justin Lafleur is a senior assistant director of sports communications at Lehigh University.