BELLE GLADE — There are many reasons why people choose to become a nurse. For Selma Santos, the reason is nurses: All the ones who helped care for Sabrina, her daughter.
“The nurses that took care of her, they were angels. They were so good to us, not only to her, but to me, too,” said Santos, who graduates this month from Palm Beach State College’s Associate in Science degree in Nursing program at the Belle Glade campus.
And there were many nurses over the years.
Sabrina and her twin brother, Carlos Jr., were 33-week preemies when they were born at Boston Children’s Hospital in 1995. Unlike her brother, Sabrina was sick from the beginning, and when she was finally able to go home two months later, it was with a diagnosis of cystic fibrosis, a complex, chronic disease that primarily affects the lungs and digestive system, caused by a faulty gene inherited from both parents. Santos and her husband were shocked. With no family history of it, they had no idea that they each carried the gene. Also, carriers usually don’t have any symptoms.
As Sabrina grew up, her lungs required constant vigilance. She would need to go to the hospital a few times a year, and they did treatments at home. The family moved to West Boca when the Boston winters became too much for her. There were ups and downs with infections, which involved intensive treatments, but she was a very happy, spirited child and extremely bright.
As Sabrina progressed through school, she was always eager to learn new things and when frustrated by missing school due to her condition, she enrolled in the selective Stanford Online High School. She studied Latin during those years and after graduating, attended college in Boston. Santos went with her as support, and Sabrina alternated between online and on-campus classes, depending on her health. She took classes to satisfy her wide-ranging interests, continued with Latin and added Greek. Her dream job was to work in London as a translator of ancient texts.
They had started looking for lung transplants when Sabrina turned 18, and the urgency increased when an infection cost her half of her lung function. A year before the operation, they relocated to Cleveland, to be close to the Cleveland Clinic where she would get a double-lung transplant. However, Sabrina didn’t do well. She stayed at the Cleveland Clinic for two months, with doctors trying everything, but then passed away. She was 22.
“I cannot describe how it was the last two months of her life. It was very painful,” Santos said. “So many years we fought. We did a lot of fundraising for research, and my son used to go to Washington, D.C., every year to do advocacy. We took her everywhere for treatment, but it wasn’t meant to be.”
Now, three years later, when Santos thinks about Sabrina and their journey, she also recalls the good experiences they had and how nurses touched their lives and went above and beyond to help.
For example, the nurses at West Boca Medical Center let Santos set up a tent inside Sabrina’s hospital room. They allowed Sabrina to sleep inside the tent and would go inside themselves to take her vitals and hook up her IVs.
A nurse at Jackson Memorial Hospital spent so much time trying to relax Sabrina before inserting a PICC line, or catheter, for IV-administered medications.
Gail McPhee Holland, their nurse at the Cystic Fibrosis Clinic at the University of Miami, also owned a dance studio. In her free time, she created and coached a dance routine for Sabrina and her twin brother to perform at Sabrina’s Quinceañera party.
Just to talk about the dedication of these nurses brings back so many emotions for Santos. Several of the nurses are still her friends. They live in Miami, Boston and Cleveland, but keep in touch.
Professor Julieta Diaz, MSN, RN, taught Santos in the nursing program and saw that Santos’ years of caregiving have given her valuable insight into how families experience health care and nursing, which when added to her new nursing knowledge and skills, will be an impactful combination.
“Selma transformed her grief by furthering her education so she can take care of others,” Diaz said. “Nursing requires compassion, empathy, dedication, accountability, professionalism and ethics. Selma has these attributes, which I believe will make her a great nurse. It’s really an honor to have been her professor and her mentor here on our Belle Glade campus.”
Santos is preparing to take the registered nurse licensure exam early next year and is planning to pursue a Bachelor of Science in Nursing degree. With her son in graduate school, she and her husband are empty nesters. Before having children, she was an insurance agent but now at 55, Santos looks forward to dedicating her future working years to giving back as a nurse.
“When Sabrina passed away, I had to think very hard if I would be strong enough to continue with plans to become a nurse,” Santos said. “I just wanted to run away and never again step a foot in another hospital. But I’m absolutely sure that I made the right decision because I saw my daughter’s face in every patient that I took care of throughout my clinicals. Taking care of my patients will be my way of honoring Sabrina’s memory.”