A portrait of Miguel Hernandez.
Miguel Hernandez aspires to one day work in a medical respiratory intensive care unit. (Courtesy photo)

Class of 2020: Doctors and nurses saved Miguel Hernandez’s life. Now he will join their ranks.

Six years ago, an accident in a friend’s pool left Hernandez in a coma. His gratitude for the caregivers who treated him inspired his pursuit of a nursing degree.

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Though VCU will not hold an in-person commencement ceremony this spring due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the university will host a virtual commencement celebration May 8 and spring graduates will be invited to participate in the university's formal commencement ceremony on Dec. 12. In these challenging times, thousands of students will earn their degrees this spring. These are some of their stories. 

Seeing firsthand the holistic care nurses provide led Miguel Hernandez to seek a career in nursing. Hernandez, a Loudoun County native, was knocked unconscious in a friend’s pool at the end of his sophomore year of high school in 2014 and fell into a coma. He was taken by ambulance to the emergency department at INOVA Loudoun Hospital and then airlifted to the intensive care unit at INOVA Fair Oaks Hospital. He went into cardiac arrest and also had a collapsed lung, hypothermia and pneumonia.

“This is the only hospitalization I have ever had in my life,” he said. “It was so severe. I was lucky to be taken care of by INOVA. The doctors and nurses invested in me and my health.”

After being discharged, when Hernandez returned to the emergency department at INOVA for a checkup, the nurse who had seen him when he was first brought into the unit was on duty and recognized his name. “He was surprised. He broke into tears and gave me a bear hug,” Hernandez said. “From my perspective, I had never seen him in my life.”

That was the moment Hernandez knew he wanted to pursue a career in health care.

“I wanted to pay it forward,” he said. “It was the first time I was exposed to the environment of doctors and nurses who provided holistic care. I have so much respect for the career. I decided I would do everything I can to get there myself.”

Hernandez will graduate this spring from the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Nursing. Going through the nursing program at VCU has given him a new perspective on the commitment, knowledge, communication and hands-on skill sets needed to be proficient in the field. “VCU’s program provided us with a comprehensive and varied clinical experience,” he said.

It was the first time I was exposed to the environment of doctors and nurses who provided holistic care. I have so much respect for the career. I decided I would do everything I can to get there myself.

Some of the most valuable experiences have taken place in recent weeks. Hernandez, a senior in the traditional Bachelor of Science in Nursing program, was finishing his clinical requirements for graduation when the COVID-19 pandemic began, changing the focus of his final months of instruction.

The majority of his work recently has involved monitoring and auditing personal protective equipment usage and proper hand hygiene procedures by the staff who are entering rooms and working directly with COVID-confirmed patients or patients that have symptoms but have not been confirmed with COVID through VCU’s lab testing.

“The atmosphere within the hospital definitely feels different amidst all that has happened, and I'm very grateful and proud to see all of the work being done within the hospital in response to a situation that is quite literally unprecedented,” Hernandez said.

After graduation, he would like to work in a medical respiratory intensive care unit setting. Hernandez will start a new job at INOVA Loudoun on the medical surgical and oncology unit in July. He’s not sure how his work at INOVA will be affected by the pandemic. His unit is not an ICU, “but if the situation remains similar to how it is now, I wouldn't be surprised if the census on my unit is comprised mostly of those who are on the recovery end of a COVID-related admission,” he said.

Moving to a new environment will be easier for Hernandez because his girlfriend will be working in the same INOVA hospital system. Melissa Kapfer, a senior in the School of Nursing, will be located at Fair Oaks — the same hospital that saved Hernandez’s life. The two met through the nursing program.

“She’s been my rock and my inspiration through the process,” Hernandez said. “I’m thankful that I can mentally decompress and think through things with her because we have similar interests and perspectives.”

Hernandez said his experiences at VCU while working during the pandemic will influence his practice as a nurse going forward.

“It has significantly increased the need for patient and self-advocacy and also accountability of upholding standards of practice to minimize complications to an especially vulnerable patient population,” Hernandez said.

“The entire experience has led to a certain sense of elevated comradeship with my peers,” he said. “The discipline, work ethic and strength displayed at all hours by those around me make me more proud and honored to be entering the profession, in ways that words sincerely cannot express.”