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Life lessons from a veteran nurse

National Nurses Week is May 6-12, so we asked Palm Beach County-based ICU/oncology nurse Joel Zapata to talk about health, happiness and his passion for his job. Zapata, 36, is a former nominee of the Palm Healthcare Foundation Nursing Distinction Awards for his service and leadership.

Q: What do you love most about nursing?

A: I’m a “people person.” I enjoy talking and listening to people and their stories. I love to see people laugh, and one of my gifts is “clowning.” Working as an oncology nurse, I developed a sense of responsibility toward the patients, not only to provide compassionate nursing care, but also to cheer them up. I’ve dressed up to go to work on holidays, decorated their rooms, told them jokes and even danced.

Q: What is the most difficult aspect of caring for people?

A: In my experience as an oncology and currently ICU nurse, the most difficult aspect of caring for a patient is taking care of a human being in his most vulnerable time (during sickness or dying). Having said that, the most important aspect of caring is based on needs, and that’s what the oncology and ICU training has given me – the ability to provide care to acutely ill patients and their families.

Q: What advice would you give readers to stay healthy?

A: [Learn to] understand the human body and how it works so a person can identify if something does go wrong. Also, it’s important to be aware of family history. I’m a believer that when it comes to family history everything becomes more serious. Knowing what medical conditions a patient’s parents and grandparents suffered from creates a big “awareness sign” on his personal health profile. By knowing and understanding both of these aspects, people can potentially identify, modify and even prevent possible medical conditions.

Q: How do you stay fit and healthy?

A: I always try to keep myself healthy by exercising and eating healthy, but it is a 24/7 job. It never ends.

Q: Tell us about your favorite patient or moment on the job.

A: I’ve had many special moments with patients, but the most memorable moment and privilege was to be able to take care of one of my mentors who I love and respect very much. I always say that nurses are like soldiers – we fight hand-in-hand with our patients to survive. At the same time, we are the angels that provide comfort at the end of life.