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Gemma Balagtas, BSN, RN

Gemma Balagtas, BSN, RN

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Staff Nurse, Critical Care
NYC Health + Hospitals/Elmhurst

The road to becoming a nurse has been both challenging and rewarding for Gemma Balagtas, who originally planned on an engineering career before she entered the nursing profession at the urging of her aunt when she was a high school student in the Philippines.

“I took up nursing in college, but I encountered a lot of struggles because it was expensive,” she recollects. “I had to sell food to my classmates just to sustain some of my expenses, but I was lucky enough to have friends who would help me keep up my finances. I also stopped for a year so I could help my parents. I graduated with my bachelor’s degree in nursing in 1993 and passed the board exam in the same year.”

Balagtas has been a nurse for 29 years, three of them at NYC Health + Hospitals/Elmhurst, where she currently serves as a Staff Nurse in the Critical Care unit. She came to the U.S. from her native Philippines in 2017 to pursue greater opportunities in nursing. “When I got here in the U.S. and worked as a nurse, it was my ultimate dream becoming a reality,” she enthuses. “I was able to bring my family here and now we’re together.”

 “I love my profession,” she declares. “I love taking care of patients, I am very hard-working, and I am a good team member as well as a team leader.”

Balagtas says the COVID-19 crisis has fundamentally altered the nursing profession and her views. “It was during the pandemic that I realized being a nurse is such a noble profession. In the hospital, we really worked as a team, no matter how hard it was to deal with COVID patients; it was a very humbling experience to have worked with my senior nurses who helped me get through because I was new then in the unit. I almost gave up working in the hospital because I was so scared to get COVID.”

“What keeps me going is this story: One day during the peak of COVID in April 2020, after a tiring night in the hospital, I was walking to the subway station,” she relates. “I was not going to go back again to the hospital that night because I felt so drained. We had back-to-backs during the night, taking turns in attending to patients and doing CPR to help COVID patients survive. But as I was reflecting, a bus driver waved his hand in my direction with a thumbs-up, and I saw his lips saying ‘thank you.’ And as I looked around, it was only me on the street. And then I realized it was me he was talking to — a person who didn’t know me, but just saw that I was a nurse coming out of the hospital, and saying thank you to me. This made me decide to work even more to help patients that needed my care. It was a big realization for me.”

Balagtas says she feels that all of NYC Health + Hospitals ICARE values are important to her work. “I respect everyone, because if you show respect to people they will reciprocate with respect to you. And I take accountability to whatever actions I make: every time I do something, I make sure it is within the scope of nursing practice. And I do things in a manner so that patients will be satisfied with my service, so that at the end of the day, I can tell myself, ‘I did a good job again.’”

Learn more about our Nursing Excellence Award Winners