Gina Shay-Zapien, APRN, RNC, MSN, CNS-BC, is accustomed to helping others with their personal challenges. A perinatal clinical nurse specialist in The Family Birthing Center at Menorah Medical Center, she is known for going great lengths to comfort a grieving family during their darkest hour following the loss of a child before birth. Those around Shay-Zapien are continually touched by her unfailing grace as she tenderly consoles parents, hugging them with a special brand of love, personifying the spiritual aspects of nursing care, helping to create space for patients to experience the joy of parenthood and others to express sadness for their reality.
According to her colleagues, Shay-Zapien is an active listener, non-judgmental and administers patient-focused care in every situation. Her willingness to abandon personal preoccupations and to be in the moment for mothers, fathers and families is unwavering.
Now 44-year-old Shay-Zapien—wife, mother of three, nurse and friend—is facing the challenge of a lifetime: Stage 3A multifocal breast cancer. She discovered the lump during a regular self-exam on July 7, and, like many women who stumble on something suspicious, knew immediately it was cancer.
“I don’t have a family history of breast cancer nor am I considered a high-risk candidate for the disease,” says Shay-Zapien. “I have fibrous breasts and as a result had a biopsy in May 2011. In July, when I put my fingers on the lump, I knew it was different.”
Shay-Zapien underwent another biopsy on July 19, 2012 and then a bilateral mastectomy on August 9 during which surgeon Amie Jew, MD, removed eight nodes. Five of them tested positive; Shay-Zapien received the news with her usual acceptance.
“Before my diagnosis, I was at a place in life considering my next move and challenge,” says Shay-Zapien, known for setting the bar high and vaulting beyond that. “Perhaps getting my doctorate of nursing or getting involved in medical missions.”
Breast cancer wasn’t exactly the challenge Shay-Zapien had in mind.
But true to her proactive, can-do, will-do and must-do attitude, Shay-Zapien was in a wheelchair at the Kansas City Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure on August 12, 2012, three days following surgery. Surrounded by friends and Menorah Medical Center co-workers such as Kathy Jackson, RN, director of The Family Birthing Center at Menorah, Shay-Zapien participated in the annual event—where thousands of breast cancer survivors, patients and their loved ones gather for hope and strength—the only way she knows how: by moving forward.
Jackson says Shay-Zapien’s diagnosis was a shock and devastating to her work family. “She is young, had no risk factors.”
The Family Birthing Center team—80 strong—rallied for their workmate who chose to recover post-op on their floor at Menorah. They designed T-shirts emblazoned with the familiar pink breast cancer ribbon and the phrase, “Gina’s Perks.” Seventy-two shirts were sold at $20 each, and the proceeds helped funded Social Supper meals for Shay-Zapien and her family.
Shay-Zapien, scheduled for eight rounds of chemotherapy and subsequent weeks of radiation, returned to her job in late August with a bright attitude and positive spirit—something Jackson says the staff fully expected.
“Gina will move forward,” says Jackson, recalling how her friend was determined to attend the Susan G. Komen walk in August mere days following surgery. “She will fight through.”
Steven D. Wilkinson, FACHE, president and chief executive officer of Menorah Medical Center, says giving back and paying it forward are priorities for Shay-Zapien. Active in her church, parish, and community, Shay-Zapien works with the homeless, provides funeral dinners and volunteers with the Children’s Liturgy Program at St. Matthew’s Parish.
“I always put myself in our patients’ shoes,” says Wilkinson. “’What kind of care would I receive here?’ I ask myself. I’m proud Menorah employees work hard to provide extraordinary healthcare on all levels—and that professionals like Gina inspire us to reach for perfection. Walking the talk is akin to breathing for Gina; I am grateful for her example of kindness and selflessness.”
For Gina Shay-Zapien, whose challenge of a lifetime is in full swing, there are mothers and families who need her right now.
“Dr. Jew says the three nodes that tested negative are a sign of great hope,” says Shay-Zapien. “But my most important job is helping others.”
For this nurse, life is about caring, compassion and connection—and staying in the moment.