Caregiver cares for herself as she completes FDU nursing degree

Nursing student Maria Palombo takes a patient's vital signs at a senior wellness event in West Orange. (Photo by Mike D'Onofrio, courtesy of South Orange Patch)

By Kenna Caprio

Maria Palombo’s always busy, but she’s far from distracted.

During the 22-year-old’s tenure at Fairleigh Dickinson University, the Ridgewood, N.J. resident attended classes and took exams, fulfilled nursing degree clinical requirements, worked at Student Health Services — Metropolitan Campus, cared for her mom and siblings, visited the Dominican Republic on a Catholic mission and played Division I soccer.

“She puts everything she has into everything she’s doing,” says Elizabeth Drywa, the SHSMetro administrative assistant who supervised Palombo in her role as a student health assistant.

Palombo’s dedication is not surprising given the man her father was and the woman her mother is.

Frank A. Palombo of FDNY Ladder Co. 105 in Brooklyn, New York died on September 11, 2001. He was a first responder at the Twin Towers and father to 10 children with wife Jean Palombo. Maria is the fourth of the eight boys and two girls. She was only 11-years-old on that awful day and her youngest sibling just 11-months-old.

Even before September 11, Palombo wanted to be a firefighter, just like her dad. In high school, though, she came to a tough realization about her size and stature.

“Late at night I was in my room crying because I couldn’t be a firefighter, when it just came to me — I heard a voice — ‘Be a nurse,’” recalls Palombo. “I ran to wake my mom up at 3 a.m. and said, ‘I’m going to be a nurse!’ Becoming a nurse is like the female version of being a firefighter. I can give my life for every patient.”

Making her father and family proud reverberates through every move and decision she makes.

“The death of my father pushed me to do better, to make him proud,” says Palombo. “Losing him made me more compassionate.”

That compassion and dedication, Mahan predicts, will make Palombo into an excellent nurse. “She takes the time to focus and that’s what we’re looking for in nurses nowadays. She’ll be a credit to the profession,” says Ann Mahan, nurse practitioner and director of SHSMetro.

Palombo applied and landed the SHSMetro position after applying for other various hands-on, nursing externships and meeting with disappointing results.

“Maria is very eager. She always wants to learn new things and enjoys being challenged. She’s one of the most optimistic people I’ve ever met,” says Drywa.           

As an assistant, Palombo ensured students were up-to-date on vaccines, completed various administrative tasks, organized education posters and helped others learn about diseases and medical conditions.

“One day, Nurse Ann called me back to show me how she interacted with a patient,” says Palombo. “She wanted me to do more nurse-related duties under her supervision. She showed me how to administer injections and vaccines, take vital signs and conduct therapeutic communications with patients.”

“We’ve allowed her to perform some clinical tasks, including working under my supervision during the flu vaccine clinic,” says Mahan. “That way, she’s been able to participate in patient care.”

Palombo describes the SHSMetro staff as very willing to teach, and says that their collective experience has elevated her nursing knowledge.

Her nursing education has been rounded out through clinical practice, which is directly linked to what students learn in the FDU classroom. She’s had clinical practice at: Englewood Hospital and Medical Center, Teaneck Nursing Home, Mountainside Hospital, Valley Hospital, Saint Joseph’s Regional Medical Center and, currently, Morristown Medical Center.

Palombo credits her academic success to overcoming the difficulties she had in the classroom when she was younger. “In elementary, middle and high school it was a nightmare doing homework. But, not having it come easy taught me how to study and learn in my own way, which helped me do better in college,” says Palombo. She maintains a grade point ratio of 3.7 as she prepares to graduate.

Still, it’s not just nursing skills that she learned at FDU.

“At first at FDU, I wasn’t very involved,” says Palombo. “Being a commuter student, going to class and going straight home didn’t enrich me. The more I got involved, the more I came out of myself, and the better the experience. I made close friends.”

Palombo (at far right) poses with her FDU soccer friends.

Some of those friendships formed at SHSMetro, others on the soccer field. In the summer before her senior year of college, she gathered her courage and decided to tryout for soccer. Division I soccer.

“The students I worked with at SHSMetro, they pushed me,” she says. SHSMetro gave her time off to practice and play.

It took a lot of confidence to try out later in her higher education career. Although she played both junior varsity and varsity soccer in high school, playing in college didn’t seem viable. “I didn’t think I could manage both DI soccer and studying nursing,” she says. That changed after she chatted with soccer athletes and the FDU coach at a free ice cream social the summer in between her junior and senior years.

“It was hard to keep up,” she says of the tryout. She kept waiting for the coach to tell her, “Okay, Maria, it’s not working out.” Her positive attitude and hard work on the field paid off. “He saw something in me and kept me around.”

That positive attitude can be partially attributed to Palombo’s faith.

“When my father died it was tragic. But it brought me closer to God,” says Palombo. So did the seven-month long Catholic mission she completed in the Dominican Republic. “I learned Spanish! I don’t think I would’ve finished my FDU experience as strongly with out the experience,” she says.

Her Catholicism sustains her through all kinds of personal struggles. As a college sophomore, Palombo learned that her mother Jean had been diagnosed with Stage 4 colon cancer. Though she’s cycled in and out of chemotherapy and undergone surgeries, Palombo’s mother remains very ill. Palombo is optimistic that a new drug trial that helps the immune system fight cancer will be the key to her mother getting and staying healthy.

Upon graduating, Palombo will look for a nursing position in a hospital. “I want to be a floater nurse, going to different units. I love geriatrics and labor and delivery, but I want to learn more about other specialties,” she says.

Turns out, Maria isn’t the only Palombo living a big moment this spring — her brother Joey will graduate from Pace University. Her brother Frankie and his wife are expecting their first child. Her brother John will graduate with his associate degree from Bergen Community College. And her brother Patrick will graduate from high school and will matriculate this fall as part of FDU’s Class of 2017.

“I'm a little sad Patrick’s coming here when I’m leaving,” she says. “It would be fun to teach him the ins and outs. My advice is: get as involved as possible.”

Feature Story from the FDU Newsroom

FDU Office of Public Relations

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Helen Grill,
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