Frank Baez poses with family and friends after his graduation ceremony. (Credit: Kate Lord/New York University)
Twelve years ago, when Frank Baez was spending his weekends cleaning patient rooms, bathrooms, and hallways at NYU Langone’s Hospital, he couldn’t have imagined that one day he would go from taking care of patient rooms to taking care of patients.
But that’s exactly what’s on the horizon for this recent graduate of NYU Rory Meyers College of Nursing.
When Baez was a recent immigrant from the Dominican Republic, he was finishing high school in Brooklyn and learning English, while working part-time in housekeeping to help support his family. So how did he go from working as a janitor to becoming a nurse?
“I worked as a housekeeper for almost 3 years. While cleaning the rooms and hallways, I observed the interactions between health care professionals and patients and felt that a career in health care suits my values and aspirations,” says Baez, now 29.
He began working in health care by being a patient transporter, taking patients for imaging and other testing. During that time, Baez earned a Bachelor’s degree in Spanish literature with a minor in biological sciences at Hunter College.
After graduating from Hunter, Baez got a job as a unit clerk at NYU Langone Orthopedic Hospital’s special care unit. In this position, he developed a system that improved the process of how patients received their prescriptions after their discharge. While Baez was obviously doing well in his job, he wanted to do even more.
Baez wanted to be a nurse. His colleagues encouraged him to apply to nursing school, and the senior director of nursing even suggested writing his letter of recommendation.
“I became inspired to become a nurse by working with other nurses at NYU Langone Health. Seeing their work on a day-to-day basis and learning how they care for their patients and how they advocate for them inspired me to become one of them,” says Baez.
Frank Baez at NYU Langone Orthopedic Hospital
Because Baez already had a degree, he was accepted into the accelerated program at the NYU Rory Meyers College of Nursing. During an intense 15-months, Baez earned a degree in nursing with a 3.5+ GPA. He was inducted into the Sigma Theta Tau International Honor Society of Nursing as well.
During his final semester, Baez took the Critical Care Nursing elective, which gave him the opportunity to spend time in the Cardiac ICU. Now, he’s working on a Master’s degree to become an acute care nurse practitioner. “When I took care of my first heart transplant patient, I was impressed by the efficiency and skills of the nurse I worked with,” says Baez. “I also saw the power of medicine and nursing to tide over the patient in critical illness. I want to be a part of that.”
Baez has advice for anyone thinking of becoming a nurse: “I would advise any aspiring nurses to not let any barriers stand in your way. Most importantly, find mentors and coaches. Emulate their attributes and add grit and determination to achieve your goals,” says Baez. “Being in the right place at the right time is just the beginning—one must seize the possibilities. I did.”
Overcoming adversity is a demanding task that requires a great deal of emotional resilience and mental toughness. While many people react to such circumstances with a flood of emotions and a sense of uncertainty, others may choose to adapt positively in response to their life-changing situations and stressful conditions. As a medical-surgical nurse, Jamie Davis, RN, understands the meaning of handling adversity both professionally and personally. In this Q&A interview, Davis discusses the importance of emotional resilience and how rising above adversity ultimately shaped her into the nurse that she is today.
Jamie Davis, RN
How did you become a nurse?
In 2006, I attended college in Michigan with a major in cosmetology. I met someone who was working as an LVN at the time who asked if I needed a job. During that moment, I did not have any intention of working in the health care industry. But during the interview however, I was asked, “how would you feel if you were unable to help someone you were caring for?” Surprised by this question, I simply responded, “I would feel horrible, but in the end, I would do everything in my power to assist them and make them feel better as a person.” It was at this moment that ultimately began my journey as a future nurse.
Why did you choose the specialty you currently work in now?
In 2007, I received a distressing phone call from my parents informing me that my brother was admitted into the ICU. After hearing the news, I booked a flight to California and headed straight to the hospital where he was staying at. When I walked into the room, I saw my brother lying lifeless in bed with machines hooked up to him. At that moment, so many memories rushed through my head and I began to have all these endless questions – What am I going to do if he doesn’t come out of this bed? How are we going to move on? How are we going to make it through this? Luckily, my doubts and fears went away when he began to improve so I decided to fly back home.
A few months later around Christmas time however, I received another troubling phone call from my mother telling me that my brother got readmitted again to the ICU but this time with worsening complications. As I rushed to the hospital, I distinctly remember seeing all the tubes hooked up to my brother and the nurses working tirelessly to save him.
Unfortunately, the following morning, I received the phone call that nobody ever wants to hear – my brother has passed away. It was a life changing moment that my family and I will never forget, but ultimately inspired me to become the nurse that I am today.
Therefore, although I currently work on the medical surgical unit, my dream is to one day work in either the ER or ICU settings to one day help those patients who are also in critical need.
How has your brother’s passing impacted the care you give for your patients?
Although my brother’s passing continues to affect me each and every day, I’ve learned to keep his memory with me every time I come to work and care for my patients. Despite his unexpected death, I’ve learned to understand that being resilient is learning how to not only live with those painful memories but also deal with it in a positive way.
What kind of advice would you give our readers on how to overcome tragedy as a nurse and develop resiliency?
One piece of advice that I would like to give the readers on how to overcome tragedy as a nurse is understanding that overcoming adversity is a personal journey. It’s okay to grieve from time to time, but it’s also important to take your sadness and create something positive out of it. Because of this, I have learned to become a more vocal advocate for my patients and their loved ones in times of need. By doing this, I am able to honor my brother’s spirit through my work as a nurse.
Do you have any parting words of encouragement for those interested in pursuing a career in nursing?
To anyone else who may be going through a difficult time, please don’t give up. Regardless of how difficult and emotionally challenging life can seem, personal success all depends on how you choose to deal with your given circumstances. Therefore, I am a living example that no matter what life puts you through, your dreams can become possible if you believe it.
Let’s rewind back to the summer of 2014. I
was in the midst of my senior year of nursing school taking classes, working,
and doing my best to survive the New York City summertime heat. While working
on an assignment one evening, my mother called me to say that my uncle had been
in a near-fatal motorcycle accident. He was put onto a ventilator and had to
endure an extensive hospital stay. This news was incredibly upsetting and
unexpected. I have always been close with my uncle and couldn’t help but feel
I pushed on through my classes and day-to-day routine, but I noticed that I was suddenly sleeping more, eating less, and often feeling unfocused and unmotivated. I chalked it up to stress from school and work, especially since it was my last year and I was expected to graduate that upcoming spring. Reaching out for help was a fleeting thought, and I firmly decided that I could handle these feelings on my own.
Turns out, I was wrong. Feeling down, unmotivated, and overwhelmed consumed me. I received a C minus in one of my summer classes, which coupled with a C minus that I had received earlier in my nursing school career. For a while everything felt so slow, but suddenly it was as if I were thrown into a time-lapse getting caught up with reality. I frantically reached out to my academic advisor who monotonously told me that if I was struggling with a personal issue I should have spoken up sooner and that two C minuses are not acceptable in the program, but I could speak with my professor directly about the grade. There was hope. Except there wasn’t, because my professor would not budge on the matter. With that being said, I was kicked out of nursing school the fall of my senior year.
My recently furnished dorm room had to be dismantled—clothing back in suitcases, photos taken off the walls. I had to say goodbye to my roommates who were confused and concerned. I had to say goodbye to my friends of four years. The reality that I would not be graduating after years of hard work crushed me.
I experienced panic like never before. I couldn’t breathe, couldn’t move, couldn’t feel anything but my lungs constricting. I felt like I was going to explode. A counselor diagnosed me with both panic disorder and generalized anxiety disorder.
I moved back home and tried to figure out what to do next in a frenzied state. No nursing school would accept someone who was dismissed for poor academic performance. The panic attacks only got worse. I was having them at least three times per day. Most people would have given up at this point and settled for less, but I had always known that nursing is the only career I wanted for myself. I would not settle, no matter how much I was hurting, no matter how impossible things seemed.
I began seeing a regular therapist in an effort to get my life back on track. Things seemed to be improving. During the winter of 2015, about four months after my dismissal, I was driving home from a therapy session down a road I’ve known my whole life. Suddenly, a car pulled out in front of me, taking me off-guard. I slammed on my breaks, but it was too late. I smashed into the car head on. My insides were screaming panic, but I couldn’t move. Bystanders got out of their cars to help, but my doors were locked and could not be opened. People were asking me through my window if I could move my legs and I didn’t know if I could. I heard sirens and thought to myself, “I have to be dreaming.” Paramedics had to cut through the top of my car, hoist me out, and strap me to a board that was put into the ambulance. More panic.
Though I questioned my faith during that time, I thankfully left the hospital banged up and bruised, but not detrimentally damaged. I sustained a treatable back injury. After my recovery, I applied for a job at an urgent care clinic because I wanted to maintain medical practice in my life. I thought it would help, both with my practice as a future medical care provider as well as my emotional state. I was happy to get the position, but that meant having to drive again. During that period of time, my drives to work consisted of multiple instances of having to pull over and having countless panic attacks. But I got there. I kept up with both my therapy sessions for the anxiety and physical therapy for my back.
That spring, I attended the graduation ceremony of the friends I was forced to leave behind. I can’t begin to describe how happy I felt for them. At the same time, I worried that they would end up leaving me behind. I felt that in a way, they already were. I felt awkward being with them in public because I didn’t want people from outer circles asking questions that I was too embarrassed to answer. I didn’t know how to fit in anymore with my best friends. This caused panic that I cannot forget.
Rather than closing in on myself, I mustered up the courage to apply back to the same nursing school that I was dismissed from for entrance the upcoming fall semester. I was asked back for an interview, which I graciously accepted and prepared for rigorously. On the day of my interview, I walked into a familiar building unable to control my shaking body. As I sat across from my old professors, I was asked what will be different this time around, should they allow me back. I told them the truth. I spoke about my journey dealing with anxiety and ways that I am now able to manage it, though it goes without saying that it is challenging. I highlighted my relentless drive to be a nurse, and that if the past year wasn’t enough to stop me, then nothing ever could. I was accepted back into the program; my faith was slowly being restored.
I was taking classes with students who had known each other their entire nursing school careers. I also struggled to grasp the material at first, being that I was rusty from having to take time off. I felt disoriented and like an outsider, but I didn’t let that distract me from achieving greatness. I made the dean’s list at the university that only a year ago had told me that I wasn’t good enough. I eventually made friends with my classmates and strengthened the relationships with my old friends.
That May, I graduated proudly. All my friends and family were there to support me. Panic took the backseat.
After passing the NCLEX, I worked in a couple of different clinics and health systems gaining invaluable experience. Despite my fear of rejection, I applied and was accepted into a master’s program for midwifery. I now happily work at a fertility clinic and am excited to graduate the midwifery program stronger than ever. I have discovered my interests within the nursing field, which include researching the United States’ shockingly high maternal mortality rates and normalizing breastfeeding, especially among women of color.
Now, I have been invited to become a member
of the Sigma Theta Tau International Honor Society of Nursing. Once more, I
have to ask myself whether I’m dreaming, only this time it’s under completely
different circumstances. I won’t lie, a sense of underlying anxiety persists
within me, but I can now recognize that I have valuable coping mechanisms that
I have learned through therapy, a group of friends and family members who are
my rocks, and a sense of proudness and empowerment in what I have accomplished
that cannot be taken away. I am eager to make my mark on the field of nursing.
I can’t wait for what will come next.
I remember my last code. You know how it
goes: it was 7:00 a.m., and I was charting as if my own life depended on it.
The gray light of early morning oozed through the curtained windows. All was quiet,
except for the clacking of the keys. My mouth tasted of too strong coffee, yet
my eyelids dropped. It was almost time to go.
That was when I heard the snoring. It was a sound I hadn’t heard before. The sound has a rolling, gagging quality to it. I jumped to my sore feet and listened like a hunting dog for where the sound originated.
There it was. There!
I ran into the patient’s room, took one look from the doorway and knew he was dying. His mouth hung open in a large “O,” and his tongue spilled out of his powdered blue mouth. I yelled for help and plunged into the job of securing the airway.
It was just like any other code, really. I’m not sure when I started to feel uncomfortable. My hands shook, and something deep inside me trembled. I had told myself since my last dance with my mental illness that I wouldn’t get myself into stressful situations—something absolutely impossible for a floor nurse.
The charge nurse was there, and I felt the patient was safe with her. Clearly, he wasn’t safe with me. I told her that I couldn’t be in there anymore, and I left.
My manager approached me not unkindly and told me to go back in. I told her I couldn’t. I honestly would have stood like a statue had I tried.
It was a matter of a few weeks before they fired me, and with good reason considering how I acted. Did I even deserve to be called nurse after all that happened in my struggle to be a good nurse?
In other words, who am I now?
I honestly didn’t grow up wanting to be a nurse. I wanted to be a writer, but I was told that wasn’t a path that would lead to a good life. So, I abandoned it. Instead of facing my passion for writing, I furtively scratched out short stories in the far reaches of my room. All I ever wanted to do was write.
Life twisted. It turned tortuously, and I found myself needing a job. I liked medicine. In fact, that was what my mother wanted me to pursue—and what she had wished she had pursued. Nursing seemed like an obvious path for me. I love helping people. I am fascinated by the human body. I was smart enough for the curriculum. I liked it but didn’t love it like some of my classmates.
I will brag and say I graduated second in my class. Through nursing school, I did develop a love for it. I could help people so much more with the knowledge I had gained. I knew things and had seen things that made me powerful. Medical knowledge is immensely powerful.
I was proud to say
that I was a nurse. I felt a fellowship with the hardworking men and women
around me. I was amazed at how good they were, how it felt to work as a team. I
loved helping out with codes and being on the frontlines. I grew to love being
a nurse, and I took part of my identity from this fact.
what went wrong?
On some deep level, I knew my emotions
were not in my control all the time. I would have racing thoughts about the
simplest things. I would worry that something terrible would happen. Very
often, I could not manage the strength to get out of bed and to be a part of
life. I had known this since I was a teenager, but I didn’t want anyone to call
I still functioned well as a nurse: respected, well liked with a great reputation. My feelings only got worse as I continued to work, though. The stress of nursing weighed down on me, the struggle to get through a shift. I took a leave, and I was finally diagnosed—and treated for—bipolar disorder.
It seemed liked a downward spiral, though. I would get better only when I didn’t work. And I wanted to work! I had worked so hard and given up so much for the privilege to call myself nurse.
It all went away, and that made me incredibly sad. In that state and in that situation, I was not safe for patients. I understand that and thank those who removed me.
I work as a practice administrator in a psychiatrist’s office now. My struggles with mental illness allow me to help those who are suffering or maybe are at a part of the journey that I recognize. I write, too, as you may have noticed. Since I lost my job, I’ve been using my skills in both nursing and writing to make a way for myself and my family.
But I don’t feel like a nurse anymore. I don’t feel a part of that fellowship. I don’t remember drug names, and I can’t tell you what lab values mean. I worked so hard for entry into this club, and I feel on the outs. I feel disconnected with an identity I once held dear.
I told my mother-in-law about missing nursing. She’s a positive woman, always upbeat. Certainly not like me! Her words were simple, though I doubt she understood the complexity of the situation.
“Lynda,” she said, “you are more than a nurse now. Other people are just nurses.”
I will admit that it still stings, despite my mother-in-law’s wisdom. On my journey, I became a nurse, but as that journey continued, I found that I could be so much more, all the parts of me. And maybe, through that journey to becoming a nurse, I can help someone in their journey—whatever it maybe.
Marygrace Colucci (center) along with her supervisor/nurse manager Louise Esposito (right) and Marianna Vazquez, CNO (left)
Imagine moving to the United States from the Philippines and building a nursing and military career. That’s what Marygrace Colucci, RN, BSN, MSN, did when she migrated to the U.S. in 1995. Today, Colucci is living her lifelong dream as a staff RN in the ophthalmology operating room at Northwell Health at Syosset Hospital in New Hyde Park, New York.
In May, Colucci was honored with the Zuckerberg Nursing Excellence Award during National Nurses Week. The award recognizes exceptional nurses at Northwell Health.
“Ever since I was a little girl, I wanted to be a nurse,” Colucci says. “I have seven siblings, so my parents could only send me to a two-year midwifery program due to the financial constraint to support a four-year BSN program. I graduated at 18, passed the midwifery board but couldn’t get my license until I was 21 years old. I started working as a midwife in the hospital with just a permit, and I remember having so much fun delivering babies, and assisting in C-section procedures.”
Colucci says that when she first arrived in the U.S., it was a huge culture shock. “I missed my family and friends. I was homesick, but eventually got over it,” she says. “I was afraid to talk to people because of the language barrier; not because I didn’t know how to speak the language, but more because I was shy of my English and my accent.”
Colucci was inspired by her cousin who served in the U.S. Army as a nurse. “He was sort of my role model, and that is why I joined the Army Reserve in 1998,” Colucci says. “Joining the Army helped me overcome most of the challenges I had to face back then such as the language barrier, being shy, and lacking self-confidence. The Army taught me how to face all kinds of adversity. I’d have to say the Army really turned me into the kind of person I am today.”
Another supportive influence for Colucci has been her husband. “When I graduated with my associate’s degree in nursing, he told me I should go back to school, which I intended to do anyway. I went on to finish my BSN, and he told me again that I should go for my master’s, which I intended on doing. But him pushing me to go further was really a good motivator. And now that I’m done with my NP, he said go for your doctorate, which I’m still considering.”
Colucci says for now she is focusing on her military career. She hopes to be promoted to major in the future. “I also want to focus on helping soldiers from my unit, which I am currently commanding,” she says. “I try to motivate my soldiers and tell them that they can do so much with their skills, and that there are so many opportunities available if they’ll just work hard for everything that they want to achieve.”
“I also tell my fellow Filipino coworkers to advance their education by going back to school,” she says. “I told them that if I can do it, so can they. I’m not really smart; I just happen to be disciplined and really put a lot of time and effort into everything I set my mind on achieving.”
Colucci sees herself working in emergency medicine in the future. “I had a great time when I was doing my clinical at the urgent care centers. I told myself I will embark in that field if given the chance. I think emergency medicine is a very good and rewarding field to practice. I would like to be promoted to major in the next two years; and eventually to lieutenant colonel in the Army Nurse Corps.”
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