Sandra Riojas attended Heritage University on a full scholarship graduating with her BSN in 2018. Heritage University is a private university on the Yakama Indian Reservation in Toppenish, WA. For the last 2+ years, Riojas has worked at Central Washington Family Medicine in geriatrics and OB. She is also the lead RN of the OB unit. Riojas is a featured nurse leader representing rural nursing in the recently released WCN and HCA video; As a Nurse, You Have the Power to Influence Health Equity.
WCN recently caught up with Sandra to ask about her nursing experience.
WCN: How did you come to choose nursing as your career path?
Sandra Riojas: You know, I always wanted to be a nurse. I remember a scenario when I lived in Mattawa, WA. I had a couple of cousins playing basketball, and one of my cousins sprained their ankle (or something like that). And I ran to him, wanting to provide care. I was probably about twelve years old when that happened. And ever since that day, I knew I wanted to do something in nursing or the medical field. I didn’t decide to be a nurse then, but I did start contemplating it. However, one of my cousins was very ill when I went to Mexico after graduating high school. Her gallbladder was inflamed. We took her to the hospital in Merida, Mexico. The care there was not great. They were overflowing with patients, and my cousin had to wait in the hallway for care. It took hours for them to see her. And she was in so much pain. It was that day I decided I needed to be a nurse. I knew then that I needed to have a voice in patient care. I wanted to be the one who could communicate with family members (even if that was in a hallway).
WCN: What are some of the challenges you have faced becoming a nurse and how did you overcome them?
Sandra Riojas: One of the challenges was working during my nursing program. It was hard, but I was blessed. I had received a full-ride scholarship, and that was great. But I had to move from Mattawa to Yakima. And I had bills to pay. I had to pay for my apartment, food, and gas. I would say pride got in the way, too, and I didn’t want to ask my dad for help. And though he did help me by giving me money, I felt like it was a burden for him. Even though I know it wasn’t because he knew I had a full-ride scholarship, so, to him, it wasn’t a burden to help me with groceries or something. But for me, it was hard, and I was determined to get a job. So, I became an LPN in 2015 and got a job that would help me through the BSN program.
They tell you don’t work through the nursing program, but I had to. There was no other option. I didn’t have family in Yakima I could live with, so I had to work a job to get through the nursing program. And that was one of my biggest challenges.
With a job, I had to learn how to manage my time. And my money, too. Right after work or at lunch, I would be reading and studying. I used my planner, my phone calendar, and reminders all the time. I just understood that my goal was to be a nurse, and I had to prioritize my time if I wanted to be successful.
My parents were very supportive. I wasn’t going to finish the LPN program, but my dad said, “You have one semester left. Finish it.” And honestly, it was the best decision because it helped me be financially stable while finishing the BSN program.
The other challenge was not spending time with family because they were an hour away, and school was my priority.
WCN: So far in your career, what do you enjoy most about being a nurse?
Sandra Riojas: I would say the patient interaction and knowing the impact I can have on patients and their families. I work with geriatrics and OB patients. Being with geriatric patients in the hospice setting and being able to help a family holistically and knowing the impact I can make for them is powerful. Even if it is something simple like getting them a glass of water and letting the family have more time with their family member.
And in OB, I enjoy seeing mothers from the beginning of their pregnancy through the ninth month. And in postpartum, I enjoy seeing them come back to say, look, this is the baby from my belly; I want you to meet them. It’s just like, wow, I did have an impact on them. It is the little things that remind me why I am a nurse. Some days are tough, but then some days remind me why I am here, why I become a nurse.
WCN: Why do you think diversity and representation are important in the nursing workforce?
Sandra Riojas: It is important because our patients are from diverse ethnicities or identify themselves in a multitude of ways. If we can be open and respectful to them, then we can provide better care. And that is something I learned through experience. Even though I may not understand someone else’s language, I can find some help to communicate with them better. That is all any of us want. We want to feel cared for. We want to feel important to the person caring for us. And that is my goal. That is what I strive for at my job. Even though someone might be on a different path, I want them to know that I don’t care what they’ve done; I care for you here and now, regardless of who you are.
WCN: Nursing is a challenging job and often traumatic. What techniques or strategies do you use to build resiliency, remain effective, and not burn out?
Sandra Riojas: I try to work out every day and eat healthy foods. I also attend church at least twice a week. Being in prayer helps me. I’m a Christian and believe in God and in being in prayer with him, where I can express my feelings and the strength I need. I also have a supportive husband who I can talk to and who is praying for me to have a blessed day or giving me thoughts like, it’s okay, it’s not the end of the world, you’ll get passed it. My family’s support is also important. And I have good friends. Ones I can vent to and who provide me with the support I need.
The other thing is when working with providers, we sometimes can be overworked. And we say, yes, I can do that, to everything. But being able to communicate to somebody that you need their help or that you need a break is important. For me personally, I have a provider I can count on and who I can let know hey, I feel overwhelmed in this area and need your help. And hearing from her, you’re doing a great job, is like thank you. Because sometimes I feel like I’m not. So, you need to speak up as a part of self-care. If you never speak up, you will get burnt out.
WCN: What has your experience been working through the pandemic?
Sandra Riojas: It certainly has been interesting. It has been a process of going with the flow and adapting to new flows. But you learn to be adaptive and to be patient with it. There are still people out there who are fearful of it. And you go through a process of just trying to understand them and where they are coming from and educating them by providing them and their family with information. But I feel like it has also made me more aware. Like, in the past, people would go to work with a cough or fever, and nothing would be done about it. People were getting sick, and there were germs, germs everywhere. Now, if someone is catching a cold, they are more mindful of that.
WCN: What are your future career goals in nursing?
Sandra Riojas: I have given it some thought, and eventually, I want to go back to school, but I don’t know for what yet. I don’t know if it will be woman’s health, management work, counseling, or what. Right now, my goals are to continue to learn, do the best I can, be there for my patients when they need me, and work on finding my niche. I do love teaching, too. So maybe a Master’s in Education to teach nursing students.
WCN: Given your experience so far in your nursing program and in nursing, what advice do you have for those considering a career in nursing?
Sandra Riojas: The advice I would give, is don’t be afraid to ask for help. And don’t be afraid to ask your family for help either. And if nursing is something you really want to do, you must be committed to it because it is hard. I don’t think it is an easy career. You do have to be disciplined in your study and know your skills. One of the biggest things for me was accepting failure. Because for me, it was hard getting a B or an A- and questioning, am I smart enough, I should’ve gotten an A. But that is not the point. The point is the why. Why do I need to know this for my patient? Then you will understand the process of it. This shift happened for me toward my senior year and made things easier to understand.