Nursing broken hearts
When her husband passed away, this aspiring nurse had a choice – quit college or find the strength to keep going.
Story Dan Vaccaro | Photos Alyson McClaran
Rita Araceli Zerfoss had a good thing going. She was 26 years old, with two beautiful children and a husband who was an enthusiastic supporter of her dream to go back to college. With one semester of prerequisites left, she was excited to start on the road to becoming a nurse.
That final semester was set to start Jan. 19, 2015. On Jan. 18, her husband passed away, and just like that, her life and future were thrown into chaos.
While nursing a broken heart, she also took a hard look at her situation. She knew she stood at a crossroads. She could give up on college, keep working, and no one would question her choice. Or she could take the more difficult path.
“I knew it would be really challenging,” she recalls, “but I felt like Mike would want me to continue. So, there was really no other option. I was not quitting.”
Zerfoss finished her prerequisites and joined the Traditional Nursing Program at Metropolitan State University of Denver.
As expected, she had her work cut out for her with balancing school and clinicals, plus a job to pay the bills and parenting two young boys. But every time she began to have doubts, she drew motivation from the fact that she was honoring her husband’s memory and sending a message to her children: no challenge is too big, if you set your heart to it.
She also had support from family, both her own and her husband’s. His cousin moved from Glenwood Springs to Denver and would help with day-to-day tasks like picking up the children from school. And when Zerfoss had back-to-back clinical rotations, her mother-in-law would drive from Glenwood Springs and meet her in Silverthorne to take the kids for the weekend.
“I feel incredibly lucky to have such supportive people in my life, family and teachers who encouraged me to keep going despite the challenges,” she says. “Without them, I’m not sure I would have made it to graduation.”
But she did make it. She will receive her Bachelor of Science in Nursing on Dec. 15 and plans to take the National Council Licensure Exam in nursing this February. Then the job hunt begins.
Zerfoss’ ultimate goal is to become a nurse practitioner in the field of community health. She wants to work with minority populations, particularly Latinos, so she can use her Spanish language skills to benefit the community. To get started on that path, she plans to specialize in the area of cardiology, assisting patients who struggle with heart health – people with stents, pacemakers, or those who’ve recently had surgery.
It’s a career that seems especially fitting for a young woman who knows a thing or two about healing broken hearts.
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