Inspiring grads: Jessica Lechuga

Jessica Lechuga
Jessica Lechuga and her daughter, Abby

Jessica Lechuga was just 17 years old when she gave birth to her daughter, Abby, who had a rare and serious medical condition called CHARGE syndrome, a disorder that affects many areas of the body. Being a young mom, Lechuga felt intimidated by the unfamiliar terminology her doctors used to describe her daughter’s condition, but her nurses in the neonatal unit helped her feel confident that she could care for her newborn.

“Nurses in the neonatal unit are heroes,” she said. “They really make you feel like you’re part of your child’s health journey.”

It was their compassion that inspired Lechuga to eventually pursue her own career in nursing.

“The nurses really helped me just continue to get stronger as a mother and just persevere. They gave me a lot of strength to be able to handle everything that was going on,” said Lechuga, who graduates this May with her bachelor’s in nursing.

A single mom, Lechuga put college on hold for a decade after her daughter was born. She worked as a pharmacy technician and focused on caring for Abby, who needed multiple surgeries before age 3. When Abby’s health stabilized around 10 years old, Lechuga felt confident that she could go to college and pursue her dreams. She took her prerequisites at a community college before joining UIC’s bachelor of science in nursing program in 2018.

“I was very hesitant about going to school after so many years because I didn’t want to be the ‘older student.’ But here at UIC, I never felt that way,” she said. “There’s actually a big range of ages and that made me feel really comfortable. In the end, I know I will be providing a better and brighter future for my daughter.”

UIC was a perfect fit for Lechuga, with Abby’s school located right next door. Now 14, Abby is doing well — the only health issue that remains is bilateral hearing loss — and she enjoys spending time in a college environment.

“Abby works on her homework in the College of Nursing lobby and people in the college know her and say hi to her,” Lechuga said. “She’s thriving.”

Lechuga, a first-generation college student, found her UIC experience to be challenging, yet rewarding.

“I knew nursing school was going to be one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life,” she said. “It was challenging, but it was definitely doable. My experience at UIC has been great and I love the diversity of the student body. I will miss having that little window into so many different worlds.”

Although her introduction to nursing took place in a neonatal unit, Lechuga plans to spend her career at the other end of the spectrum — in a geriatric primary care setting.

“Being in the neonatal room is definitely triggering for me; there’s still a lot of PTSD from that for me, listening to the beeps,” she said. “So, I knew that wasn’t the route for me.

“Working in a pharmacy, my population was geriatrics for the most part, so I have a lot of experience of how to relate to them and interact with them. And in my culture — I’m Mexican American — we really value our elders. They are the ones who help our family. They’re the ones you go to when you need advice. I knew this was the population I want to serve. It’s a thank you to them.”

As Lechuga finishes up her studies, she’s excited to join the workforce, especially at such a critical time.

“I am so proud of the nursing profession’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic,” she said. “I signed up to care for people in need, and now more than ever, there are many in need. I am ready.”

Lechuga and her daughter will both be celebrating graduations together this May, as Abby completes eighth grade.

“I plan on throwing a mini, double celebration,” Lechuga said. “We will probably throw a Zoom session with our loved ones and indulge in well-deserved sweets.”

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