Brother's Keeper: Diaz Brothers Follow a Unique Route into Nursing

Rafael Diaz, left, followed his brother, Ricardo, to UVA this fall. Both are nursing students, inspired by the care Ricardo received during a serious illness. (Photo by Christine Phelan Kueter, UVA School of Nursing)

If brothers Ricardo and Rafael Diaz – born in the Philippines, but raised by their family in Farmville, Virginia – had each always considered careers in health care, it wasn’t until an illness, subsequent surgeries and a lengthy recovery that their paths toward careers in nursing truly solidified.

For elder brother Ricardo, now a rising second-year student in the University of Virginia’s School of Nursing, his experience of transitioning from a high school junior who was active in soccer, golf and swimming to a hospital patient, weak and ailing, proved his turning point.

For younger brother Rafael, today a first-year nursing student at UVA, it was the intensity of observing his brother’s plight and a budding determination to help him in ways both big and small.

“When I saw him so weak, and how I had to help him walk around, I cried,” recalled Rafael, who arrived on Grounds Aug. 22 to start his first year of nursing courses. “All these things I could do that he could not; it was incredibly difficult.”

Diagnosed at 17 with Meckel’s diverticulitis– a congenital malformation of the small intestine that affects just 2 percent of the population – it was January 2015 when Ricardo found himself confined to a hospital bed and dependent on others for help with simple activities like walking, bathing and dressing. After a violent spate of gastrointestinal illness, a trip to the emergency room, endless testing and, ultimately, a diagnosis, he’d undergone three surgeries and two weeks confined to a hospital bed.

Bored, uncomfortable homesick, and confined to a windowless, cinder-block-walled hospital room with a roommate, Ricardo recalls a nurse who tended not just his basic needs, but his mental health as well.

The nurse pulled some strings to move Ricardo to a private room with an expansive view of the Richmond skyline. That “pure empathy,” Ricardo recalled, offered a glimpse of the small kindnesses nurses offer that, for a patient, can loom large.

“Going from being someone who was very active to being someone who had trouble getting up, using the bathroom, moving around by myself – it was incredibly difficult,” Ricardo said. And while there were the issues that his body struggled with, Ricardo’s nurse “helped with what was going on in my head, too. I never forgot it. It made me realize, too, that nursing was something I could do to help others.”

Back at home some 25 pounds lighter, Ricardo’s recovery was slow, and his wounds required daily care. But fast-forward six months, and the 18-year-old was back on the soccer field with a new future in mind. Applying to several schools with exceptional nursing programs his senior year, he plotted his path forward. And when UVA called to offer him the University Achievement Award, which covers tuition for all four years of study, Ricardo leapt.

It’s been a solid landing. He’s joined the MAN (Men Advancing Nursing) Club, and, while dissecting sheep eyeballs during nursing labs his first year turned his stomach a bit, he’s eager to begin clinical rotations in this, his second year.

And even as brother Rafael joins him on Grounds as a fellow nursing student, the two, while happy to be close, insist they’ll each find their own way.

“I’ll seek his advice from time to time,” Rafael said, “but I’m independent, and he is, too. If I need food, or a ride, I’ll still call him.”

And what do they say when asked about finding their way as men in a female-dominated profession? (Nationally, about 9 percent of nurses are male. At the UVA School of Nursing, 15 percent of the student body is male: just over 10 percent of undergraduates and more than 20 percent of graduate students.)

The question fatigues them both.

“To us, this is normal,” said Ricardo plainly. “I’m doing what I want to do.”

Adds Rafael, “People say that we’ll do all the heavy lifting, as male nurses. But nurses, we’re all doing what we need to do to care for our patients. As a nurse, and as a male, you don’t need to stand out in particular. We’re all nurses.”

Media Contact

Christine Phelan Kueter

School of Nursing