Battling a terminal illness, Patria Villalona’s mother wanted her daughter to do one thing: become a nurse. Today, the Bronx resident is fulfilling that wish.
Villalona, of Grand Concourse, is a care team supervisor in internal medicine at AdvantageCare Physicians’ (ACPNY) in Washington Heights. She has worked long hours during the pandemic, seen an enormous amount of life lost, administered vaccines to millions of New Yorkers and made a difference in the community.
“What I love about ACPNY is that you become the nurse for the community,” Villalona said. “If you work at a hospital, you might see people and never see them again, but at ACPNY, you serve your community. That allows patients to be very familiar with you and it’s more direct.”
However, her path to nursing is unique and did not happen overnight.
Born and raised in Washington Heights, Villalona, 45, loved singing and acting and wanted to be a rockstar like Madonna.
She studied theater and psychology at CUNY, but upon graduating, took a career path no one would have expected. Villalona landed a job with a national clothing company and worked in sales for 20 years.
However, by 2015, the retail industry was in the middle of an economic decline, and she had soured on her career profession.
“I noticed women weren’t treated as equal as men when commissions came,” she said.
During that time, her mom, Rosario, got very sick and told her daughter that before she dies, she wanted her to do something that would benefit the community. As the doctors gave Rosario just five years to live, Villalona was determined to fulfill her mother’s wish.
Not only are many of her family members doctors and nurses, but seeing the way the nurses supported her mother when she received treatment for pulmonary fibrosis made Villalona realize that this was a job where she could pay this care and attention forward.
“Everyone in my family said Patria you should be a nurse,” she said. “Going with her to all the appointments and seeing how the doctors cared I was so thankful for all the doctors and nurses.”
Her mom passed away in 2015 and Villalona followed through on her promise and became a nurse in 2018. She landed her first job with ACPNY in the same neighborhood she grew up in. According to Villalona, the transition to nursing has transformed her life. Being able to help people, especially those who lack insurance, is quite meaningful. ACPNY has become a second home for Villalona, and she described it as special because of the community feel of the company.
“You talk to the same patients, you know their stories, you know their lives, so it’s almost like a family,” she said. “I enjoy it a lot. I have magnificent coworkers.”
But not even two years on the job, everything changed when the pandemic hit. Vilalona witnessed many of her patients get the virus, get sick and die. She was there when some of them took their last breath, she said. It was an emotionally challenging time that she hopes she will never have to experience again.
“It was very hard, but we came to work every day,” Villalona said. “The reason why I didn’t go crazy was because I wasn’t home.”
After battling through the worst of the pandemic, she is now making sure the patients get the COVID-19 vaccine as she has seen firsthand how her community has either been underserved or hesitant toward receiving the vaccinations.
But through all the death she’s witnessed during COVID-19, Vilalona doesn’t regret switching careers.
“I’m having an impact on someone’s life,” she said. “It’s a great experience. It’s made me a stronger person.”
Reach Jason Cohen at email@example.com or (718) 260-4598. For more coverage, follow us on Twitter @bronxtimes and Facebook @bronxtimes.