Carissa Hernandez made a promise to herself not to quit — especially not now.
Hernandez is a new UNLV School of Nursing graduate student in the Master of Science in Nursing Nurse Educator program, the latest step in her nursing journey. But this year has challenged Hernandez beyond the stresses of juggling work and school.
She tested positive for COVID-19 this summer, and so did her youngest daughter and her husband. She and her daughter recovered, but her husband, Artor “Art” Nazzari, died of complications from COVID-19 in July 2020.
Despite this immeasurable loss, Hernandez is not giving up on her education, a choice that honors her husband’s memory and a commitment she made to herself and her family.
From Dance Partners to Partners in Life
Though always interested in healthcare, Hernandez’s professional life began as a dancer, touring the world with different dance companies. She first spotted Nazzari performing at a mutual friend’s show. “This guy came out and danced, and he blew my mind,” she says. “He was unbelievable, and I’m like, ‘I want to dance with this guy.’”
Their relationship gradually became romantic. “It was almost natural,” she said. “I think we fell in love with each other without realizing it happened.” They eventually formed their own dance company, converting their garage into a dance studio, complete with wood floors, ballet bars and mirrors.
Nazzari was shy and introverted off-stage, but was a devoted husband and father. “Honestly, he lived for his kids, she explains. “If he wasn't in the studio and he wasn’t playing the guitar, he was with his kids.”
In May, Nazzari developed a nagging ear infection. Hernandez says he went to three different doctors and was put on three different rounds of antibiotics, but nothing worked. He eventually underwent a mastoidectomy (inner ear surgery) at the end of the month. His discomfort grew and was initially attributed to a side effect of the antibiotics, she says. Nazzari was admitted to the hospital and where he developed bilateral pneumonia. Nazzarri, Hernandez, and their youngest daughter all tested positive for COVID-19. Nazzari was released from the hospital near the end of June and eventually all tested negative for the disease.
The family went back to their regular lives, albeit with precautions. But after July 4th, Hernandez says, Nazzari lost his appetite again and his fever came back. They thought the original infection was not completely cleared up. Hernandez took him to the hospital as his symptoms worsened. He retested for COVID-19, came back positive again. He developed a dry cough, and his oxygen dropped, ultimately leading to intubation. He died July 19, just days before their youngest daughter’s birthday.
Struggling to Cope
Hernandez credits her immediate family and her co-workers for helping her move forward, but each day is a struggle. “I cry every single day,” she admits. “There are certain triggers and I just have to let it out, then pick myself back up, and then I will move on with my day. … Right now, I’m ok. But I can’t guarantee what I’ll be like in 30 minutes.”
Her daughters, ages 11, 8, and 5, are handling their father’s death in different ways. “My oldest is struggling; she understands a little more about the finality of it all. My middle daughter is a bit quieter about it. My youngest daughter doesn't understand the finality yet. She’ll tell me, ‘Oh, Mommy, don't worry. As soon as Corona is over with, Daddy's going to come back.’”
Her Second Career
Hernandez began her nursing education in 2012 after settling in Las Vegas. She was attracted to the patient interaction side of healthcare and began by taking one class at a time, a conscious decision not to rush the process and shortchange her young family. “Time is going to pass, regardless of whether I took the class or not,” she says. “I figured even if it takes me X amount of years, it’s still going to be X amount of years (working after that). So, I might as well just go slow.”
She worked her way up, from her associate's degree at College of Southern Nevada through her BSN from Nevada State College, with Nazzari encouraging her all along the way.
Currently, she works as an ER nurse at the Department of Veteran Affairs. With the master’s from UNLV, she plans to become a nurse educator, which gives her “the opportunity to take the things that I've learned and the way I see things and be able to educate people. And they will take those things, and then they will educate people.”
Going back to school has been more challenging this year, but she draws on her family’s support to keep moving forward.
“Why would I quit school?” she asks. “My husband was so proud of me. He was so excited that I got accepted into the program. And even now more than ever, I don't want my girls to see when things get hard that you just quit.”
She recalls a moment when one of her daughters said she wanted to be like her mother when she grows up. “If I quit, what did I just teach her? To just quit when things get hard? That’s not good,” she says. “I want them to be strong, independent women that never have to depend on somebody to take care of them. I'm hoping by seeing that you can continue to do good things, even in adversity, that will hopefully one day teach them later in life that they can do it, too.”