The finance industry and the nursing profession may seem worlds apart. But Juan Pineda, RN, a former investment officer for the Massachusetts State Treasury Department who is now a cardiac surgery ICU nurse at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia in New York City, was able to make a smooth transition from the world of number crunching to the challenging and rewarding field of nursing, thanks to a passion for patient care and a love for helping people.

Making a total career change is often a risky endeavor, but for Pineda the bigger risk was remaining in a field that he was not passionate about. “I was more afraid of staying in my investment job than I was of making such a big change,” he says. “As hard is it might be to [have to start all over] in terms of education, it was harder for me to imagine myself in that same position .” Still, he admits, making such a dramatic career shift “definitely takes guts and determination.”

Pineda is the son of Colombian parents who immigrated to the United States in the early 1970s. They settled in the Boston area, where Pineda, along with his older brother, was born and raised.

Pineda’s interest in the health care field emerged in high school when he had to complete a community service project as a Spanish-language interpreter at Massachusetts General Hospital to earn credits toward graduation.

“It exposed me to the hospital environment and I thought it was great,” he recalls. “I really enjoyed helping people. Whenever I walked in to translate for a patient or a family, their faces would light up. They were probably so afraid about what was happening, and finally [here was someone who spoke their language] and could help them understand what was going on, rather than just having people poking and prodding them.”

After graduating from high school, Pineda thought about going to college as a pre-med major. But at 18 years old, he felt he was not ready for the rigor of pursuing a medical degree. “After I did the interpreting for about two months, I went away to college thinking that I was going to major in pre-med after having that experience in the hospital,” he says. “I was really interested in science and the human body. But I don’t think I was really ready to go to college at 18. I wanted to take some time off and really think about what I wanted to do. However, my parents didn’t think that was a good idea, and they strongly encouraged me to continue [with my education].”

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He ultimately decided to remain at the University of Massachusetts Amherst to complete his degree, but not as a pre-med student. “[Back then], I just didn’t have the dedication for it,” he says. The thought of having to take difficult science classes, like organic chemistry, scared him. He decided to switch gears and pursue a degree in political science, one of his other big areas of interest.

As a political science major, Pineda focused his studies on international relations, comparative politics and issues affecting Central and South America. “At that time I thought I would go to work for the UN or something,” he says. “I minored in French and lived in France for a while and thought I would go down the path of working in international relations.”

After graduating with his bachelor’s degree in political science, Pineda took advantage of an opportunity to work at the Massachusetts State Senate. The job, however, focused more on the financial side of state politics than on the policy-making side.

“I worked as a budget analyst for the Ways and Means Committee,” he explains. “Then I moved to the State Treasury and became an investment officer. I did general fund investments in bonds and long-term debt, investing up to $1 billion. This wasn’t really complicated work—I didn’t have a background in investing. But I wanted to learn more [about the field], so I accepted a position at [the financial services firm] Morgan Stanley.”

At the time, the job at Morgan Stanley seemed like an attractive offer that would give him opportunities to use his Spanish-speaking skills and his background in international relations. With the possibility of assignments that would involve traveling to South America to gain clients seeking to invest money in the U.S., Pineda thought he had finally found a way to combine some of his interests.

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But by the time he had completed his training and licensing in early 2001, the economy was in a downturn. It was not a good time to be working in the financial sector, and Pineda never got his chance to travel for Morgan Stanley. He was also beginning to feel that his career path was leading him further and further away from his original interest in public service.

“I didn’t feel like I was helping people by working in investing,” he says. “I realized I wouldn’t be successful in that career, because I didn’t have enough passion for what I was doing.”

Ready for Change

After quitting his job at Morgan Stanley and taking some time to think about what he really wanted to do, Pineda finally decided to return to square one and refocus on his first love: health care.

“That’s when I decided to go to nursing school,” he recalls. “I had a friend who was in nursing school and I would flip through his textbooks. He reminded me that it wasn’t too late to change careers. I agreed, and in 2001 I enrolled at Bunker Hill Community College and began taking anatomy and physiology courses.”

Pineda’s decision to make a career change into nursing was met with some resistance from his family—and even from other nurses. “When I first decided to go back to study nursing, a [nurse] friend of mine let me tour the ER of the hospital where he worked so that I could see up close what it was like. I wanted to be exposed to the ER to see if I would get nervous about seeing blood and things like that,” he explains. “One of the nurses there told me that I couldn’t go from [a field like finance] to nursing. I ignored the comment, because I knew that I can do anything if I really want to do it.”

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He says his parents “rolled their eyes” when he announced that he was returning to college full-time to pursue a nursing degree. “Because I had had so many different jobs and was in my mid-to-late 20s and still struggling to find what I really wanted [to do with my life], they didn’t believe that I would [really] do it.”

But Pineda soon proved to his family—and his peers—that he was very serious about nursing. He attended classes during the day and supported himself by working as a waiter and bartender at night. “I needed something stable that wouldn’t interfere with school,” he says.

In 2004 he completed his associate’s degree in nursing, graduating at the top of his class. Shortly after that, he accepted his current position at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia.

Today, Pineda has no shortage of opportunities to feel passionate about his work. “I love my job. I’m one of the luckiest people in the world,” he says enthusiastically. “I can’t believe that I get paid to do this. This is the most interesting job [I’ve ever had]. It’s always challenging—physically, mentally and emotionally. I’m very proud of what I do. I’m helping people. I get to learn so much about the human body, how to work with families and how to educate patients about their recovery. I’m providing emotional support to patients and families. It’s great.”

Communicating and Connecting

Pineda feels there is a strong need for more bilingual Spanish-speaking nurses all over the United States. The community his hospital serves, for example, has a large population of immigrants from the Dominican Republic. “Every day another nurse asks me to interpret,” he says. “I can’t imagine working [here] and not speaking Spanish.”

Although many of the doctors on his unit do speak Spanish, Pineda’s ability to communicate in Spanish is still in demand. “[Here in the cardiothoracic ICU], patients are coming out of surgery, so it’s very helpful for them to connect [with the nurses] and much more effective for everyone that I speak Spanish. There’s a comfort for the patients [knowing] that I share the same culture, language and interpersonal dynamics with them.”

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One of the reasons why Spanish-speaking nurses are so underrepresented in the RN workforce, Pineda believes, is the strong emphasis on family obligations in Hispanic communities. “[We] Hispanics seem to have children earlier in life,” he explains. “But [even if you do have kids] it’s worth it in the long run to continue with your education, because it will open so many doors in the future.”

As for being a man in nursing, Pineda doesn’t feel like he’s a minority in that regard. “I’ve been in units where on some days half of the nursing staff is male,” he says. “A lot of men in nursing are drawn to the ER or the ICU. It’s a very fast-paced environment. I’ve even been told by some families that [they think] male nurses are more compassionate than female nurses. The important thing, no matter what gender or race you are, is that this is a great career with lots of opportunities for growth. You can go as far as you want to go.”
Asked what qualities are necessary for a successful career in nursing, Pineda answers that a good nurse is empathetic, hard-working and determined. “You have to love this profession,” he emphasizes. “It can be difficult if you didn’t love it. The decision to become a nurse is so personal, but if [you] have a desire to learn a lot and really help people at the most critical points in their lives, it’s the best job in the world.

“It’s a competitive field,” Pineda continues. “[When you’re in nursing school], the classes are difficult. The first year is hard and from there it only gets harder. Then you have to take and pass the exams. And then when you start your first job, the work is hard and the hours are long. But it’s the most rewarding work. I advise others [interested in nursing careers] to be dedicated and do your best.”

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Continuing the Dream

Now that Juan Pineda has fulfilled his dream of becoming a nurse, he is ready to take on new challenges. This summer he began taking courses in general chemistry, organic chemistry and statistics in order to fulfill requirements needed to apply to a master’s program in nurse anesthesia.

“I already had taken many of the [prerequisite courses] during my undergraduate work as a pre-med major, so I just needed three additional classes,” he says.

Today Pineda feels he is on track to achieve the kind of career he always wanted. “Being a nurse anesthetist is my ultimate goal,” he says. “That was my original plan—to have such a special role in someone’s treatment. I’m going to apply [to CRNA programs] in November. I have been focused on getting the best grades [in my prerequisite classes], because anesthesia school is very competitive.”
And what about his long-term goals? Where does he see himself in, say, 10 or 20 years? While Pineda has given it some thought, he admits that right now he’s focusing all his energies on getting through his CRNA program.

“I’ve planned on this for the past six or seven years and it’s such a big goal,” he says. “I’ve been focused on it for so long that [at this point] I’m not sure what my goals for the future are. I have thought about teaching, though. My ultimate goal for when I retire [from nursing] is to be a teacher of English as a second language.”

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