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Student Spotlight: GSN student Irina Rojas inspired to pursue nursing career after surviving Hurricane Katrina

By Kylee Denesha

UMass Medical School Communications

September 28, 2020

Graduate School of Nursing student Irina Rojas knew health care was her calling from the time she was a child. She was 10 years old when Hurricane Katrina struck the southeast United States in 2005 and witnessed the doctors and nurses flocking to her community’s rescue.

“I was born in Mexico City, and grew up for most of my childhood in New Orleans. Both of my parents are doctors,” said Rojas, who is enrolled in the Graduate Entry Pathway Doctor of Nursing Practice Family Nurse Practitioner track. “When Hurricane Katrina happened, my dad was on call, so we stayed at Charity Hospital and ended up being trapped there for about a week. The hospital had imploded windows and flooding, and eventually, we were rescued by the SWAT team on boats.”

“I think it was my time there, just seeing the nurses and doctors, where I thought, ‘Yes, I’m going to be like them.’ They’re truly heroes to me because they were there when we needed them.”

During her days at Charity Hospital, Rojas became a caretaker for other younger children on her floor, practicing her skills in nurturing and educating. She said that while the situation was tragic and terrifying at times, it was an eye-opening experience that taught her strength.

“We truly had to work with what we had. I can remember making puppets out of latex medical gloves and creating make-shift birthday cakes out of tuna sandwiches and Q-tips for candles. It was definitely impactful, and the period up until rescue was challenging, watching tensions and nerves of the adults continue to rise. However, I thankfully had the resources to be able to grow from it and cope really well,” Rojas said.

After the hurricane displaced the Rojas family, the Red Cross and Mexican Embassy aided them in finding shelter in Louisiana and returning to the homes of family in Mexico. In 2007, Rojas’ father received a job offer in Boston, where they have lived ever since. She attended Newton North High School where she excelled as a swimmer.

Now a GSN student in the Class of 2022, she works for Charles River Community Health Center, where she has gained experience serving Latin American and Hispanic populations.

“I feel really lucky that I can communicate with our patients in Spanish,” she said.

At the health center, Rojas has also contributed to COVID-19 efforts, touching base with patients through telehealth and screening people at the door. Having lived through one of the nation’s most devastating natural disasters and now working through the pandemic has allowed her to become more aware of health care disparities, and further validates her reasons for becoming a nurse, she said.

“It is definitely scary, but I think this has really taught me about putting myself in others’ shoes, standing my ground, and continuing to build a tough skin. As nurses, we educate and guide. Working with a team of people who feel similarly is a privilege. Our mission is to serve our community at the end of the day,” she said. 

Rojas is involved in UMass Medical School’s wellness committee, encouraging the campus community to practice self-care and engage in healthy habits.

“In moments of stress, we need to prioritize our health externally and internally,” Rojas said. “Although our activities will take place virtually this year, such as the upcoming UMass Takes Care event, we’re excited to put our minds to the test and provide opportunities for nutrition, physical exercise, mindfulness meditation and much more.”

UMass Takes Care is set for Sept. 29 through Oct. 2, with Zoom activities planned for each day.

The Student Spotlight series features students in the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences, Graduate School of Nursing and School of Medicine. Do you know an interesting student who should be included? Email UMassMed News at UMMScommunications@umassmed.edu

Related stories on UMassMed News:

Student Spotlight: Anne Carlisle researches cancer cell metabolism at GSBS
Student Spotlight: GSN student Madeline Lane sees nursing as ‘perfect marriage’ of science and education
Student Spotlight: Medical student Sean Teebagy committed to community
Student Spotlight: From Kolkata to Worcester, GSBS student Kasturi Biswas drawn to science of the brain