When Chris Picchiello (N ‘22) walks into Saxbys, a huge smile spreads across his face. As he approaches the counter, he waves at half a dozen people he recognizes in the cafe. He’s come in an hour and a half before his shift starts to talk with me, but he’s already chatting with his coworkers across the counter as he orders his drink, his usual—a cold brew with almond milk.
“But that’s not the drink that would represent me,” he quickly says when I later ask him about the Saxbys drink that best embodies him. “I’m definitely a fruity guy,” he laughs. “Something fun, and a little pretty.”
No, if Chris were a drink, he'd be his own pastel–colored concoction that he makes from time to time when he’s on shift: raspberry iced tea, lemonade, cream of coconut, and finally blue butterfly blossom tea “just to make it pretty.” Sweet, fun, an unexpected but lovely twist of flavors—it's Chris in a sip.
Even though Chris has spent much of his time at Penn in the Saxbys at 40th and Locust—he's worked there since the fall of his sophomore year save for the ten months they were closed during the pandemic—being a nurse is at the center of his identity as a Penn student and beyond. From clinicals to collaborating with the fellow nurses in his cohort, Chris has found a special place in his four years studying in the School of Nursing.
“Nursing is teamwork. It’s inherently about working with others,” says Chris. That’s what made him fall in love with it. In the same way he works in step with his coworkers at Saxbys, he loves the rhythm of working on the hospital floor in sync with the rest of the nursing team to care for their patients.
The collaborative nature of the nursing profession lends itself to a similar culture within his cohort in the School of Nursing. Because of that, Chris says that he was protected from the competitive nature of Penn culture.
Chris grew up inspired by his mom, who is also a nurse. “I’m walking in her footsteps,” he says with a soft smile. He’s the baby of four brothers with a younger sister who’s also studying to be a nurse. Though he initially wanted to be a surgeon—inspired by watching Grey's Anatomy with his mom—he eventually found that nursing would be a better fit for his love of people and his kind, caring nature.
Though he’ll begin full–time work as a nurse at Penn Medicine beginning in the fall, Chris is a proud Long Island, N.Y. native—his accent gives it away, I shouldn't even have to ask. He’s looking forward to going back after graduation to spend one last summer at home with his family. “We’re a big Italian family, you know the vibes,” he says. “I can’t wait to go back for a little while.”
Outside of his nursing coursework, Chris minors in Italian studies. He often finds himself at “L’Ora Italiana” or “Italian Hour” at Williams Hall, enjoying coffee and cookies and speaking the language with other Penn students. And when he’s not practicing Italian or balancing his busy schedule of clinicals, classes, and shifts at Saxbys, he loves watching shows with his roommates like Scandal and Love Island and hanging out with his cat Louie—who Chris shows me has the honor of occupying the coveted spot as his iPhone lock screen—and is “like a son” to him.
But by far Chris’ favorite part of his time as a student at Penn has been the experience doing clinicals, which he calls the “highlight” of his education. “Clinicals have been the most formative part of my nursing career, where I’ve found my passion for talking to people and taking care of them,” he says. Particularly, his rotation in the psychiatric unit opened his eyes to the meaning of patient care and communication. But Chris ultimately found a home in his most recent rotation—the vascular step–down unit at the Pavilion—where he’ll be working full time starting in the fall.
“It’s a team—that's what they call themselves," he explains. The feeling he has working with his floor at the Pavilion isn’t unlike the feeling he has with his fellow baristas at Saxbys. “[On the floor,] we all want to work together to just help each other out wherever we can,” says Chris. “I like that energy a lot.”
Chris explains that they see a lot of amputees on his floor, and one of his favorite parts of the job is the emotional aspects and talking to patients as they adjust to post–surgical lifestyle changes. “That’s when you really connect with people, when you’re helping them navigate those emotions as they realize how their life is going to change,” he says.
Though he likes working with the patients, it’s really the other nurses that he’s met in clinicals that have inspired him. During the height of the pandemic, Chris’ unit was “the COVID floor” at the Pavilion. “All the nurses—they were like soldiers on the frontlines." He had seen his mom working at her hospital on Long Island through the pandemic—he can only imagine how much worse it was at Penn Medicine in the middle of the city.
“Coming back into clinicals, I had so much respect for people knowing what they had just gone through. I was very honored to even be working with them,” says Chris.
Of course, Chris is deeply aware of his privilege within the nursing profession. “It’s interesting to be in a female–dominated environment as a male,” he says. “But we all come together, and we have fun.” There’s certainly a stigma that comes with being a male nurse—twice during his clinical rotations, he faced patient requests for a female nurse instead—but he emphasizes that gender in nursing isn’t as big of a deal as many people think.
“Being a nurse is already such a special part of Penn. But being a guy nurse—I just feel extra special,” he says.
Chris’ goofy, warm personality makes it easy to get along with everyone, and as he moves into full–time work, he's honored to be a part of such a diverse career field and hopes to use his privilege for good in a profession historically led by women and people of color. He’s excited to learn from his team and make change in the nursing field.
“There are a lot of crises going on in the workforce,” explains Chris. Mental health among nurses is a major issue, and they’re largely underappreciated and underpaid. He hopes to bring justice to the field and learn from his place of privilege to fix things within the nursing profession from the inside. Eventually, Chris wants to go back to school to become a licensed nurse practitioner and go into either community outpatient care or psychiatric nursing. But until then, he feels like Philadelphia is the perfect place for him to be and he’s excited to start on the vascular step–down unit at the Pavilion as a full–time part of the team he’s grown to know in his time there in his clinical rotation.
Even as we sit surrounded by the bustle of the cafe, Chris is fully present in our conversation, approaching every word with thought and care—but punctuated with jokes and sweet asides. At one point, Dua Lipa comes on through the Saxbys speakers and Chris pauses, sways his shoulders a bit, and nods with a smile, saying, “I approve.” He explains that when he’s on shift, he’s usually in charge of the music playing a healthy mix of Dua Lipa, Ariana Grande, Bazzi (he starts singing the song “Mine” as we chat), Adele, and even a little of the Encanto soundtrack now and then.
Talking to Chris even for just an hour can make you feel like you’ve known him for life. Fun, silly, warm, kind, and gentle, he makes you feel like his best friend, a part of his “team.” It’s the warmth and care of people like Chris who give you hope for the health care industry—anyone would be lucky to have him at their bedside in a time of need. One thing’s for certain: Penn Medicine has found a nursing gem.
Chris’ favorite spot in Philly—other than Saxbys, of course—is the Schuylkill River Trail. We take a bus down to the riverbank, and as he poses for his photo, half–sipped cold brew in hand, his smile consumes his whole face. The day might’ve just gotten a bit sunnier.
“Water is homey to me,” he says. He’s spent many afternoons running along the trail or just going to hang out at the waterfront, spend time in the sun, and people watch. Maybe it’s the Long Island in him that attracts him to the river bank—if he can’t be on the Long Island Sound, the Schuylkill Bank is a decent replacement. Looking out at Center City to the east, the Pavilion and all of Penn Medicine to the west, Chris sees nothing but glittering potential and excitement to freely explore the city he’s proud to call his new home after graduation.
“Philly has been so enriching for me,” he says. “I feel like this is a place where I flourished a lot, and I want to keep flourishing here a bit more—not just as a student, but as a person in society.”