Gabriela Paniagua

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I guess some would say I never really had a choice (but to be a nurse)

Gabriela Paniagua

There may have been a time when a nursing career didn’t occur to Gabriela Paniagaua. There may have been a time, but if there ever was, she doesn’t remember. Or ignored it. Or dismissed it as folly.

Whatever the case, if that time ever did come, we can be thankful she paid no mind, because for Gabriela — an RN working in the Cardiothoracic Surgery ICU at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City — being a nurse seems as if it was a calling.

Which, come to think of it, is probably true.

‘I think it was a calling for me’

“I guess some would say I never really had a choice (but to be a nurse),” she said. “I come from a really strong nursing background. My mother and two aunts were nurses, and I guess you could say it’s something I always felt I wanted to do; thanks to them I grew up seeing nursing as a noble and exciting option for me as a career. Early on, I saw in my mother real excellence in care to patients.”

It didn’t take the aspiring caregiver long to begin doing the same.

“I volunteered all throughout high school, so I was very fortunate to have that experience, which only reinforced my feelings about the profession, but there was one experience I had outside the hospital that really served to confirm everything.

“I was on a sledding trip with some friends and one of them got her foot caught in one of the sleds. It was obvious she was in a lot of pain. Well, as soon as I got to her I started taking over, delegating to everyone. I packed her foot in ice and elevated it until care arrived. That made me see that I could do this; that it was natural for me. Ever since then it’s what I’ve wanted to do. I think nursing was a calling for me.”

Getting Started

She graduated in 2010 with her BSN from Messiah College in Pennsylvania and began her professional career, but service was never far from her mind. Her volunteer experience alone speaks to her passion:

  • She volunteered for almost two years at Bethesda Mission in Pennsylvania, serving 10-20 homeless men in a drug and alcohol rehabilitation program.
  • She served several months in the Yanapuma Professional Medical Spanish Program in Quito, Ecuador.
  • She has served since 2013 at the Bowery Mission in New York working with homeless people.

In the meantime, her professional career was accelerating. In 2013, Gabriela joined Mount Sinai Medical Center’s Cardiothoracic Surgery ICU. That was also the year she would find something else that would change her career. 

Discovering NIWI – and More

“I was reading (monthly magazine) AACN Bold Voices,” she recalled. “And I remember reading about the NIWI (Nurse in Washington Internship) and thinking about how interesting and fascinating that would be, but it was too late for that year. But the next year I went for it and was so excited to get it.

“It was a phenomenal experience. I had the opportunity to advocate for increased scope-of-practice for nurse practitioners and increased funding for nursing research, the nursing workforce and nurse-managed health centers. Specifically, I advocated for increased funding for nursing research using my experience and knowledge of ICU delirium. The research and publications from AACN on delirium helped inform my narrative when speaking to congressional members.”

 “I learned so much about delirium and issues surrounding it because that was my talking point,” she said. “But I only learned about all of that because of AACN and all of the resources that were available to me. It really was an exciting weekend and such an honor.

“Attending NIWI was an amazing learning experience, giving me the opportunity to advocate for nursing’s interests. The scholarship from AACN was beyond generous and comprehensively took care of all of my needs during the conference. It was great to meet other AACN scholarship recipients throughout the conference and specifically at a dinner we had together. Because of the scholarship, AACN has a strong voice at the legislative table. I I have served as an AACN scholarship reviewer, helping other nurses go to NIWI and represent AACN.” 

Being an AACN Ambassador

By then, Gabriela didn’t need an introduction to the organization. She’d already been singing the praises of the organization — so much so that in June 2013 she became an AACN ambassador.

“I love advocating for AACN. I just always found myself doing things anyway … talking to people about the organization, all of the things that it offers … that when I saw the opportunity to become one, I thought, ‘This is already what I do anyway.’

“It’s so easy to advocate for what you do. Just go on the website and search, and you will find all kinds of resources for whatever certification you need or want. It is so useful. I created a poster for Nursing Research Day, and I take it around; I’m always talking to different units about certification and how important it is. And AACN is such a supporter and a help in this regard.”

The NTI Experience

Last year, Gabriela finally attended her first NTI, making the coast-to-coast journey to join more than 8,000 of her colleagues in San Diego. While she went with considerable expectations, NTI was up to the task, she said.

“Oh my gosh. It was my first NTI experience,” she said. “I went with a friend from undergrad and was able to meet up with my co-workers while I was there. It was amazing to see nurses excited about the ICU care they provide. As a certification champion I learned so much going to sessions focused on certification best practices.

“One of my personal interests is ICU delirium, and I was fascinated hearing the lecture on Pain, Agitation and Delirium and post ICU syndrome from Brenda Pun at Vanderbilt. I would like to see more presentations on health disparities in the ICU and providing culturally competent care to ICU patients and families. I was encouraged to bring courageous care to my patients and work setting and hope to go again next year and present my poster on certification.

“It’s just incredible seeing all of your colleagues together. It’s just a great opportunity to help nurses learn and grow but also get reenergized and excited to share what they learn. It makes me excited for the future of nursing. It’s an exciting time to be a nurse.”

‘What we do and how we do it’

And why is that?

“Because it’s exciting to see what we do and how we do it. And the 'how' we do it is with compassionate care — or, as our (AACN) president (Karen McQuillan) says, with courageous care.

“We work in an environment in the ICU where validation can be a tricky thing sometimes, where the progress a patient makes can be really slow. But I love walking in at the beginning of a shift and saying, ‘Hey there, I’m Gabby, I’m your nurse today, and we’re going to have a good day today,’ and whether it’s being able to decrease settings or being able to meet other daily goals, we can get some validation and know that, hey, we’re exceptional nurses and we give exceptional patient care.

“I just love being a nurse, just knowing I am with a group of people who give excellent patient care to people who need it.”

Outside the ‘Office’

Of course, what Gabriela also needs is the downtime necessary in order to recharge sufficiently to provide great care. As you’d expect, she’s got that covered, too.

“I’m pretty protective about my time off,” she laughed. “I definitely need my downtime. I feel like when I am home I am off, and I need to do things that will help me recharge. I think it helps me be a better nurse. One of the things I like to do is work in a community garden. I may not be great at it, but I really enjoy it.

“Also biking. My husband and I do a lot of biking, all over. I also like to advocate for bike safety; I’m always talking to people about being safe on their bikes. I’m such a nurse.”

Yes she is.