Actors Playhouse Actress, Miami Firefighter Become Nurses

The whole world was once a stage for Yekaterina Ilina, a nurse at Baptist Health’s South Miami Hospital.

“Sometimes I have to sing for the patients and sometimes I have to dance,” said Ilina, 52, who specializes in nursing. “Movement is very important, especially for patients who have had surgery and don’t want to get out of bed.”

Ilina, affectionately known as “Katya,” is a medical-surgical nurse or registered nurse who cares for patients preparing for or recovering from surgery.

Singing for patients who may not be alert calms them down, Ilina said. Her songs transcend language as she sings in her native language, Russian.

Worked at the Actors’ Playhouse in Gables

“She’s a very strong, caring and loving woman,” said David Arisco, artistic director of the Actors’ Playhouse at the Miracle Theater in Coral Gables. “She studied at the Russian Academy of Theater Arts in Moscow, and she had an impressive CV and a number of plays.”

In 2007, Arisco recalled Ilina making her Actors’ Playhouse debut as “Svetlana,” a Russian translator assigned to help a couple adopt a child. Not only did she have adoption experience, but she could read between the lines in the parts of the script that were in Russian.

“Actors tend to be people with a good work ethic and work hard in whatever craft they choose,” Arisco said.

He reckons Ilina will excel in healthcare as she has innate social skills and “knows how to roleplay.” And one of her biggest roles may have occurred during the pandemic.

“Our floor was a COVID unit for almost 14 months,” said Ilina, who described wearing a hazmat suit and face shield and helping patients on ventilators. “We will never be the same again. If you have something to celebrate, celebrate now. You must live now.”

Went into nursing after her divorce

Ilina switched from her acting career to nursing after her family life changed.

“I got divorced and have four kids and it looks like I’m living in America and I’ve decided I need to think about a career I want to do,” Ilina said. “I decided to become a nurse because I knew I would find a job and I love helping people.”

As she prepares for her next challenge, Ilina said she applauds her peers. Just like in the theater, where everyone works together for the success of the performance, hospital workers band together to ensure their patients’ success. The main difference is that there is no script and the hospital performances are non-stop.

“You can’t do this alone,” Ilina said.

Ilina’s decision to switch from acting to a new career in nursing isn’t all that unusual, nursing experts say. According to the American Nurses Association, there are an estimated 4 million registered nurses in the United States, and by 2022 there will be more nursing jobs available than any other profession.

“One reason for the shortage of nurses is retirement, as the median age for registered nurses is around 40 to 50,” said Joy Longo, associate dean and professor at Florida Atlantic University’s Christine E. Lynn College of Nursing.

City of Miami firefighter/part-time nurse

To hire more nurses, hospitals are getting creative.

Consider Jorge Gallegos, a registered nurse who works part-time in the emergency room at Baptist Health’s South Miami Hospital.

“I wanted to be a lawyer,” said Gallegos, 37, a Mexican man who had dreams of helping immigrant farm workers in Homestead navigate the immigration maze.

That dream, he said, was shattered by a community college professor who told Gallegos he couldn’t afford it.

“The law school is very expensive, the professor told me,” said Gallegos. “Over a hundred grand.”

His fantastic desire to help others was reignited when he enrolled at Miami Dade College’s Fire Academy shortly after the 2008 recession.

“I paid my way through EMT (emergency medical technician) school and during my first ride we went into cardiac arrest,” Gallegos said. “We brought her back and a light switch went on. This was another opportunity for me to help people.”

Gallegos completed both the EMT and paramedic programs and then enrolled in a “bridge” nursing program to become a registered nurse. He began his nursing career at Homestead Hospital, part of Baptist Health South Florida, in 2014.

In 2015, he got a job with the City of Miami Fire Department, where he works as a firefighter at Station 5, 1200 Northwest 20th St. in Allapatah.

When he became a full-time firefighter, he transitioned to being a part-time nurse. Since 2019, he has been with South Miami Hospital, also part of Baptist Health, where he is a part-time ER nurse.

Gallegos “never left nursing and seamlessly maintained both roles,” said Baptist spokeswoman Gina Halley-Wright.

Nursing/firefighting are intertwined

During the pandemic, Gallegos said he was quarantined and did not see his wife or children for “about six to eight weeks” as he held two front-line jobs that put him at risk of contracting COVID. Nursing and firefighting are intertwined, he recalled, having ministered to everyone from “the homeless to millionaires.”

His mission statement – both as a nurse and as a firefighter – centers on a simple phrase engraved on his heart by his father from Matamoros, Mexico: “Echele Ganas.” In Spanish, it means “Give everything you have.”

Gallegos said his love of service came from humble roots. He described how his father sold CDs at the flea market and how his mother worked in a Florida City packing house.

“Don’t be like me, be better than me,” Gallegos recalled his father’s words.

Last year, Gallegos’ efforts were validated after a patient anonymously nominated him for a DAISY award, which stands for “Disease Attacking the Immune System.” The international award recognizes “the superhuman work that nurses do every day for patients and their families”.

The DAISY pin on his ER nurse badge reminds him that his chosen career ladders are callings that emphasize service and responsibility. And just like a daisy’s pedals, Gallegos said his staff are part of the flower.

Gallegos said he was honored to be part of the “pineapple,” Baptist Health’s nickname and logo.

“It’s the ignorance of what’s coming through the door in the blink of an eye,” Gallegos said. “Once they come in, it’s time to work.”

“Firefighters, nurses, paramedics, paramedics and other healthcare workers share a common trait,” said retired Hialeah fire chief Mike McCann, who oversaw Miami Dade College’s fire science program when Gallegos attended. “They all have a desire to help people and compassion for their situation, especially at their worst.”


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