Back in her lane
Chloe Portela was 11 when she underwent surgery to correct her pectus excavatum, a genetic malformation of the sternum and rib cage that left her chest caved in and made bouts of pneumonia and bronchitis regular ordeals.
The procedure was successful, but significant pain lingered during her recovery without a clear cause, puzzling her doctors at Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, Missouri. They wondered whether her discomfort might be on a psychological level. The nurses on Portela’s care team, having seen the young girl’s tenacity up close on a daily basis, pushed for more lab tests.
Sure enough, the culprit was a staph infection that would require a six-month recovery and a series of return trips from the family’s home in Lawrence, Kansas, to the hospital in Kansas City.
“I think it’s really important to get to know your patient,” she says. “That’s how I became interested in the field. My nurses got to know me for me, not just a chart.” “They were just my biggest advocates, and they helped me get the care that I needed,” Portela says of her nurses, a group that has inspired to pursue a career in the field through the School of Nursing’s Master of Nursing program.
After she graduates in December, Portela hopes to work in a neonatal intensive care unit, with an eye toward becoming a neonatal nurse practitioner. The MN program, which allows students with bachelor’s degrees outside of nursing to earn a master’s in 16 months, has offered Portela the chance to return to her adolescent interest in the field.
As an undergraduate, she opted to focus on her swimming career for the Golden Gophers while majoring in child psychology. Portela, who specialized in the butterfly, was part of four straight Big Ten Conference titles while also swimming for the Puerto Rican national team.
Though she’s from a family of swimmers—her dad represented Puerto Rico at the 1984 Summer Olympics, her mom made the United States Olympic Trials, and both of her brothers also swam for the Gophers—Portela’s childhood chest condition meant she struggled with low lung capacity, hindering her performance in the water.
Her surgery changed that, though the staph infection kept her out of the pool for about nine months. In her first meet back, she posted her fastest time yet.
“I could actually breathe,” she recalls. “It was a complete turnaround.”
Her experiences in the hospital were just as influential in shaping her career ambitions. She knew she wanted to work in health care, so she began volunteering at the hospital in Lawrence, eventually interning there as a high school senior.
She continued to seek out opportunities in health care settings as an undergraduate, first by connecting with children with life-threatening illnesses through the nonprofit HopeKids and then at the University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital. She also traveled to Peru on a medical mission trip shortly after graduating in 2015.
“It was my outlet,” says Portela, who got further confirmation that she eventually wanted to pursue nursing by spending almost three years as a nursing assistant back at Children’s Mercy Hospital after graduating.
She credits that on-the-job experience for preparing her for the MN program’s series of clinical experiences, which expose students to a variety of medical settings, such as surgery, obstetrics and psychiatric care.
“It’s good hands-on experience, and I’m definitely a hands-on learner, so being in clinicals is really what I look forward to versus reading a textbook,” says Portela. “Five hours in the hospital is so much more beneficial for me than anything else.”
Portela says she wants to help families through their most trying times by building genuine connections. After all, she’s proof of the impression nurses can make on a patient.
“I think it’s really important to get to know your patient,” she says. “That’s how I became interested in the field. My nurses got to know me for me, not just a chart.”