Walking on Air

Aug. 3, 2021
UR Nursing grad who suffered devastating injuries now provides same treatment that saved her legs

When one of her patients casts doubts on the power of hyperbaric oxygen therapy, Kim Olfano ’18N can testify to its effectiveness. The treatment saved her legs.

Olfano was just 18 years old and about to start her second semester at Monroe Community College in January 2009 when she and her twin sister were involved in a chain-reaction accident on Interstate 490. Kim ended up pinned between her SUV and the car behind her. The force of the collision shattered her legs.

Kim Olfano as a nursing student at the University of Rochester

The damage was so extensive doctors feared that neither limb would be able to be saved. After more than 30 reconstructive surgeries, time was running out. Olfano’s legs just weren’t healing. But her mother, a nurse, recalled reading about the healing powers of hyperbaric chambers. Hyperbaric oxygen therapy involves placing patients in pressurized chambers filled with 100 percent oxygen in order to fight off infections, aid the formation of blood vessels, and stimulate healing.

Most patients receive 40 treatments, Olfano said. She had 80.

“When you’re at the point where you’re about to lose your limb, you know this oxygen will help improve blood flow and circulation to the area that is compromised. And that’s what helped basically heal my leg,” Olfano said recently in an interview with Spectrum News. “Within two weeks, I noticed a change.”

Olfano’s recovery was long – she used a wheelchair for four years – but she regained full use of her legs. Determined to continue her education as she healed, Olfano graduated from MCC in 2012 then earned a bachelor’s degree from St. John Fisher College in 2014. But as she began her professional career, her mind drifted back to the trauma nurses at Strong Memorial Hospital, many of whom told her that she would make a great nurse. Two years later, Olfano was accepted into the UR Nursing’s Accelerated Program for Non-Nurses.

“It wasn’t until I actively pursued a bachelor’s degree and I started taking nursing prerequisite classes that pursuing a career in nursing became a reality for me,” she said. “The official acceptance into the UR School of Nursing was a dream come true.  I will never forget that phone call from Nancy Kita telling me that I have been accepted into the program.”

While she was elated to be part of the program, her path into the profession proved to be difficult.

“My journey at the UR School of Nursing was not the typical journey for most students. I was faced with many challenges and sought additional help through the CAPS program,” she said, citing her peer mentors and professors Kathy Hiltunen, Mary Tantillo, and Maria Marconi for helping her navigate through the rigors of the accelerated program. “I am forever grateful for every professional at the School of Nursing who has left a permanent impact on my career.”

Upon graduation in 2018, Olfano joined the nursing staff at Strong. But last year she learned of an opening in the hyperbaric suite at the Strong Wound Healing Center. The opportunity to help others in a way that was so personal to her was too good to pass up.

“I saw the job posting in July and literally gasped out loud thinking how awesome would it be to work with patients that have gone through the same treatments,” she said. “I know what it’s like to be in that chamber. I know how beneficial these treatments are, and can offer a lot of empathy and support to patients who may be losing hope.

“The best part of being a nurse thus far is knowing that I can make a positive impact on someone’s life. I do not expect anything in return. I feel like I am just doing a job I am truly passionate about.”