Called to Make Life Better

Zita Jacobson learned early how disease can alter life. At age 2, she and her family emigrated from Denmark to the United States. Four years later her dad -- a baker -- showed signs of multiple sclerosis.

“We lived above the bakery in a small town in Wisconsin. I remember when his disability reached the point where he had to crawl up and down the steps because that was the only way he could get from one level to the next,” she says. “I saw what illness could do to a person and family -- how it can devastate physically, emotionally and financially.”

Bigger and stronger than her frail mother, Zita was called on to care for her dad -- daily basics like getting him in and out of the bathtub.

When she was 14, her dad died, but her experience as a caregiver inspired a lifelong passion for medicine. She worked as a nurse’s aide in high school, and then pursued Bible college in hopes of becoming a medical missionary.

Love had other ideas. She met Michael at college, married at 19 and moved to his family’s farm in northwestern Minnesota. Within a year she earned her LPN degree from a tech school in Detroit Lakes, Minn., but nursing took a backseat. She spent the next 21 years raising three sons and farming.

“In 1991 I got a calling,” says Zita. “I really wanted to get back to nursing.”

Falling in love with dialysis

In 1991 Zita took an LPN refresher course. While waiting for her license, she got the chance to fill in as a ward clerk in the new dialysis unit in Detroit Lakes.

“I barely knew what dialysis was,” she says. “I totally fell in love with it. It’s one of the few areas of nursing where you’re so involved with your patients, often for years and years. You see the same patients three times a week for several hours at a time. You develop some real friendships and ties. And you get to know their families, too.”

Shortly after receiving her license, Zita joined the unit as a dialysis nurse. Years later she furthered her education, becoming a Registered Nurse in 2003, then a Certified Dialysis Nurse in 2006. Today Zita works as a charge nurse at Sanford Dialysis -- the same place where she started.

Ensuring a safe, comfortable process

Patient involvement energizes Zita, but she likes the technical side of dialysis, too -- how the machines function, the constant safety checks, the adjustments to ensure optimal comfort and treatment for the patient.

“Patients are so vulnerable when they’re with us. Their lives are in our hands and they trust us not to make mistakes,” she says. “We’re always checking and double-checking, then double-checking each other. The emphasis on safety inspires confidence, and that in turn makes dialysis as relaxing as possible.”

Putting herself in their shoes

In her 21years as a dialysis nurse, Zita has learned the challenges of severe kidney failure.

“I’ve seen patients go from holding a job and supporting a family to needing dialysis for the rest of their lives. Who wouldn’t be angry? We see all the stages of grief,” she says. “We help patients feel whole despite the losses. We encourage them to have as much autonomy in their lives as possible. And we’re cheerleaders, encouraging them every chance we get. We know this is a hard, hard lifestyle.”

In addition to dialysis, patients with kidney failure need to follow strict dietary and fluid guidelines. Even when following all the rules, they may look well, but don’t feel well.

“Educating patients and helping them live better is a team effort,” says Zita. “I’ve been blessed over the years to work with some very special nurses who believe in putting patients first. They recognize patients are part of the health team.”

Earning her nicknames

Gentle humor and an upbeat attitude go far in creating a life-affirming atmosphere. Even at home, Michael playfully calls Zita the eternal optimist.

“Why not?” she says. “If you go through life looking on the dark side, you miss so much joy.”

Patients have given her nicknames like Smiley and Sunshine.

“I had a 90-year-old patient called me Grandma,” says Zita, laughing. “At 62 I’m the oldest worker in the unit.”

But her passion for nursing? It’s ageless.

“I went into medicine because I wanted to help others. I had no idea I’d get so much in return,” says Zita. “Being a nurse isn’t just a job, it’s who I am -- it’s who I want to be just as long as I can.”

Has a nurse made a difference in your life? Share your story here.

Posted Date: May 2012

Called to Make Life Better

Patients on kidney dialysis face tough challenges. What can help? Meet dialysis nurse Zita Jacobson, RN, CDN. See how expertise, professionalism -- and friendship -- brighten the path!