Let Your Cape Fly

Eric Ruiz ’14, MSN ’16 was born three minutes before his twin brother, he makes sure to mention. Eric and Omar were the fourth and fifth children—the two youngest—of José and Lydia, the latter an identical twin herself. This was in Oakland, California, 1976, six years after the elder Ruizes procured five plane tickets, packed their belongings in as many suitcases, and emigrated from Cuba in pursuit of, as Eric puts it, “a better life.”

fter landing in the United States, the Ruizes first lived with family in Florida before heading west. After the twins were born, they moved again, to Las Vegas. José, who, unlike Lydia, spoke English, started a relatively successful cleaning business there. He died of a heart attack in 1982, when the twins were six years old.

For a stretch, their mother moved the family around the Southwest, to wherever she could find cleaning work: Nevada, Arizona, Utah, Colorado. In 1988, when the twins were twelve, she took a job cleaning the offices of Pratt & Whitney, an aerospace manufacturer headquartered in East Hartford, Connecticut. The family settled in neighboring Manchester.

Lydia worked nights from 5 p.m. to 3 a.m., and because Eric and Omar’s older siblings had moved into adulthood and out of the house, the twins were otherwise left to take care of themselves. When Lydia was home, the twins spoke only Spanish in the house; Eric acquired English, his second language, through school.

Lydia struggled to afford to keep the tanks filled with heating oil in their rotation of undersized apartments on Manchester’s neglected East Side. Their primary source of heat was the stove, on which she boiled water for her and the twins to sponge-bathe.

“I’d say we were a pretty low-income family,” Eric Ruiz says. He amends: “A very low-income family, I guess.”

In Eric’s senior year, a recruiter from the US Air Force came to Manchester High School and, as Ruiz remembers it, “sold a good package” that gave him an avenue out of poverty—though he finds that phrasing clichéd. “I just wasn’t somebody who thought that I’d be able to get out and see the world,” he says, “because I grew up poor.” He and a friend decided to enlist together.

“I just wasn’t somebody who thought that I’d be able to get out and see the world, because I grew up poor.”
Eric Ruiz ’14, MSN ’16

Eric graduated in May and left for basic training in October. Over the course of nearly a decade, his military service took him to three continents. For his first five years, he worked as a logistician in what was called the traffic management office, coordinating the movement of cargo and people to and from air bases like Incirlik in Turkey, and Aviano in Italy in support of US wars in the Middle East. He spent the next five years in accounting and finance, which, in wartime, oversees payroll for deployed service members.

These experiences, he says, made him “more wide-eyed on what’s really going on in the world and how people live and how we live and how good we have it, even when we really are poor—and our poor doesn’t compare to what other people are suffering through.”

Ruiz left the military in 2004 with associate degrees in logistic sciences and accounting from the Community College of the Air Force. He took a job as a traveling sales representative for Super Pet, a company that makes translucent plastic hamster tubes and other small-pet accessories. For seven years, he presided over a northeastern sales territory that stretched from Pennsylvania to Maine—as well as Spanish-speaking markets in Puerto Rico and Florida. The job required him to be on the road more often than not; during trade show season, he would travel for two or three months at a time, return to his apartment in Springfield for only a couple days’ respite, then repeat. “You’re flying, you’re driving, living in your car, living at hotels, living out of bags,” he says. “I just really couldn’t do it anymore.”

He’d always wanted to be a nurse, and AIC offered a reputable program with solid pass rates. But Super Pet incentivized him with a raise and a Blackberry—to take sales calls and orders between classes—to stay on. Between 2007 and 2008, his first year in the program, Ruiz worked for Super Pet while going to school full time. Adding to the pressure he felt as a self-identified kinesthetic learner managing a full course load was a nagging sense of obligation to his clients who had previously had uninterrupted access to him during the workday.

Surely as a result, he failed Introduction to Professional Nursing, a prerequisite to all other nursing courses, in his first semester. “If you show me a skill, I can remember it. If you show me how to do an assessment, I can do it—I can repeat it and I can do it well,” Ruiz says. “Book smarts, it takes me a lot.”

He excelled, however, in Anatomy and Physiology I. His professor, Mary Lou Longo, encouraged him to serve as her teaching assistant for Anatomy and Physiology II that spring semester, thinking it would benefit him to have to be more prepared than his classmates in order to head study sessions, grade tests, and help run labs. Still, he didn’t pass. The course wouldn’t be offered again until the following spring.

Longo sat him down before summer break, knowing he wouldn’t be returning in the fall, and told him, sternly, “You’re meant to be a nurse. You have to come back to finish your degree.”

Left: Ruiz, fifth from right, during his US Air Force deployment Above: Ruiz as an airman Opposite page, top: Ruiz, right, with mother, Lydia, and twin brother, Omar.

Super Pet, in the meantime, learned of his false start at AIC and offered him another raise to return to his traveling salesman job full time; Ruiz acquiesced. In his early thirties, somewhat dejected, he spent the next years away from academia. Each year, though, Longo sent him the same one-line email: “When are you coming back?” Her third email, he says, spurred him to quit his salesman gig and re-enroll.

When he finally did return to AIC in 2011 as a thirty-five-year-old to finish his degree, Longo had passed away at the age of seventy-two. She had taught for forty years in the biology department. Remembering her and her persistent encouragement, Ruiz always chokes up.

While finishing his bachelor’s in nursing, having left Super Pet for good, Ruiz worked as a server at the Uno Pizzeria & Grill next to the Basketball Hall of Fame. “I busted my butt making every penny,” he says. He rented a room in his friend’s house in Sixteen Acres for a reduced rate. For his senior year, the same friend offered him the room for free so that Ruiz could better focus on his degree.

The same year, after he’d maxed out his financial aid allowance, he went to Lee Hall to inquire about possible payment plans for the last $5,000 in tuition he thought he owed, but his financial aid counselor told him the balance was zero. He asked if they had the wrong account. It turned out that Karen Rousseau, RN, PhD, then the director of the nursing program and now dean of the School of Health Sciences, had found him a Health Resources and Services Administration grant to cover the remainder.

“Obviously, I gave her a big hug and cried again,” he says. “I’ve cried a lot here at AIC. It’s kind of my thing because they’re so invested in my life here.”

Around Courniotes Hall—those being the days before the Colaccino Center—Ruiz fell in among a natural cohort, “a little mini beehive” of other adult learners (a couple of whom were also veterans), a de facto component of a larger group of commuters who forged camaraderie through commonality.

As a student in the nursing program, Ruiz did several rotations in various subfields—maternity, pediatrics, geriatrics. But he had always wanted to be a labor and delivery nurse. “You’re witnessing the birth of a human being,” he says. “There’s nothing more beautiful.” So when it came time during his senior year to choose a subfield for his five-month leadership rotation, Ruiz badgered Margaret MacKinnon, MEd, RN, an associate professor of nursing, to recommend him for the lone open spot in labor and delivery at Baystate Medical Center. Passing her in the Courniotes hallways, he would call out, “Labor and delivery, Professor MacKinnon. Labor and delivery.” She, in turn, would remind him how competitive an assignment it was.

Eric Ruiz '14, MSN '16His persistence paid off, though; Ruiz was placed with a charge nurse in Baystate’s obstetrics unit. There he shadowed the clinical coordinator, Beth Zabielski, on the C-section floor, seeing “how she manages staffing, staffing issues, floor issues, census on patients, and admissions—really, how to coordinate patients on all those floors.” He found her duties to be not dissimilar to those of a military logistician, like “moving pieces on a chessboard.”

In those next five months, he says, he “changed some people’s perspective that men can’t be holistic and caring in that type of setting.” At the end of the rotation, as Ruiz prepared to graduate and re-enter the workforce, the nurses he worked with at Baystate (Zabielski among them) lobbied the powers that be to hire him full time in labor and delivery. It still wasn’t enough, initially, to overcome gender prejudices of who should and shouldn’t be a delivery nurse.

A phone call and a “glowing” letter of recommendation from Associate Professor of Nursing Ayesha Ali, PhD, MS, RN, to the hiring manager at Capuano Care, a home health care agency based in East Longmeadow, got Ruiz his first job after graduation. (He still holds on to Ali’s letter: “Sometimes I like to go back and read it.”)

He worked for a year as a psychiatric nurse for Capuano, treating patients with mental health issues living in the North and South Ends of Springfield, all the while resending his résumé whenever a position opened up in obstetrics at Baystate. He estimates that he applied for various positions fifteen times, and interviewed thrice, before landing his current job there as a labor and delivery nurse in 2016.

A year prior, Ruiz had returned to AIC for his master of science with a focus on nursing education. His capstone project addressed health literacy, identifying bedside “red flags” that would indicate a patient cannot, for whatever reason—but often due to a language barrier—comprehend health care information and make informed decisions about their treatment. “We service such a diverse community here in Springfield,” he says. “People who come from Third World countries—or even well-developed countries, but who may be from rural areas—have poor health literacy or no literacy whatsoever.” One method of assessing a patient’s literacy, he explains, is to hand them literature upside down. “If they don’t know that it’s upside down, they can’t read.”

“You’re witnessing the birth of a human being. There’s nothing more beautiful.”
Eric Ruiz ’14, MSN ’16

Each week, Ruiz works three twelve-hour shifts—put differently, an entire forty-hour workweek in just three days. He likes to arrive an hour early, at 6 p.m., to put on his scrubs and, if he’s not already assigned to a particular one, get first pick of what are called pods, subunits of obstetrics. In addition to labor and delivery, nurses in the unit can choose to work in the operating room where C-sections are performed; in high-risk labor with patients whose water broke dangerously prematurely; in the nursery; or as a post-partum nurse. Ruiz also serves as one of the trainers to the unit’s other labor and delivery nurses.

Ruiz is one of the obstetrics unit’s few male providers—and its singular male nurse, “a unicorn,” as he terms himself. “I always say I work with 125 sisters on the unit. I call them mothers,” he says, “but they don’t like when I say that.”

Eric Ruiz '14, MSN '16But burnout is a real concern for Ruiz as labor and delivery units face chronic understaffing, overextending providers nationwide. The turnover rate for labor and delivery nurses is especially high now as a result of what he calls a recent “mass exodus” of retiring nurses. In the past, “when people started in labor and delivery, they died there,” he says. “You’re talking about nurses that have been there for twenty, thirty, forty, fifty years. That’s not the norm anymore.”

A dearth of younger nurses to fill these vacancies has strained hospitals’ capacities to effectively treat their high censuses. “There can’t be twelve patients on the board in labor and five nurses coming in. That can be exhausting,” he says. “I can’t see myself working at the pace that we’re working for another twenty years. So the smart thing to do was to go back to school.”

Now a student in AIC’s family nurse practitioner (FNP) post-master’s certificate program, Ruiz still works the same forty-hour workweek at Baystate while fulfilling the didactic and clinical requirements of the program on formerly precious days off.

When he entered the program in the summer of 2019 and needed to find a clinical placement, Ruiz was advised to reach out to Mary Paquette, MS, RN, FNP, director of health services. Over email, he introduced himself and asked if there were any open spots at Dexter Health Services. His reputation, it turned out, had preceded him. “You delivered my grandbaby a couple weeks ago,” she replied. “They haven’t stopped talking about you. I would love to have you.”

At Dexter, where he works once a week, Ruiz shadows Paquette, who acts as his preceptor, in the mornings before receiving patients in the afternoon and applying classroom-learned health assessment metrics in this real-world setting. For the first time in his health care career, he’s allowed to diagnose patients.

The FNP program, he says, “is teaching me to see the patient, treat the patient, diagnose the patient, and use all the clinical skills that I’ve learned up to now as a nurse—both in my bachelor’s and my master’s.”

When Ruiz decided to enlist in the Air Force, he tried to convince his twin brother to join with him “so that we could do it together.”

Omar refused, saying he didn’t want to be told what to do. After struggling with drug addiction, he would spend the next two decades (“half of our life,” as Eric quantifies it) in several Arizona prisons. When he was granted early release for good behavior on October 1, 2018, it was the first time since they were in high school that he and Eric weren’t separated by thousands of miles or the Plexiglas partition of prison visiting rooms.

The twins have since lived together in Eric’s Springfield home. Omar works two jobs, “works harder than I do, I think,” Eric says. “We have a great relationship.” He amends: “a good-to-great relationship.”

Brotherly turbulence notwithstanding, Omar has a mantra that he’ll often text Eric: Let your cape fly.

“He has this perception that I’m a superhero because of what I do,” Eric says. “It’s kind of a lot of pressure on the shoulders when someone thinks you have a cape, but he’s very proud of who I am as a person, and I’m very proud of who he is.” •


By Brendan Gauthier