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By Mike McKibbin

War and cancer are rightly viewed as among the world’s worst things to endure. But two soon-to-be graduates from the Colorado Mountain College nursing program used their experiences with deadly conflict and disease to learn how to care for others.

The nursing program at Spring Valley and Breckenridge awarded Associate of Applied Science and Bachelor of Science in nursing degrees to the class of 2017 on May 6 in the college’s Spring Valley gymnasium. Guest speaker was Colorado Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne. The ceremony also featured outstanding nursing student awards: for an associate graduate at Spring Valley, Emily Large; for Breckenridge, Viviana Baray; for bachelor’s degree student Mark Hubbard.

Mom’s care for war victims leaves impression
Like many people drawn to Colorado, when he was 21, Erick Zuniga left Peru to ski in the U.S.; he became an American citizen last year.

As he grew up, Zuniga thought he wanted to be a ski bum. But that plan changed, due in part to what he witnessed as a child in Peru. His mother is a nurse in Peru and he saw how she cared for anyone injured in that country’s civil war.

Erick Zuniga at graduationi

Say “Ahhh!” Nursing graduate Erick Zuniga enjoys the moment after receiving his associate degree in nursing. Zuniga came to the U.S. from Peru when he was 21 to ski, then followed in his mother’s footsteps in health care. Photo Ed Kosmicki

“I remember in one bed was a terrorist and the one next to him was a cop,” Zuniga recalled. “She was taking care of both. So I was growing up seeing the horrors of war, but also seeing the difference one person can make.”

Now, Zuniga said he feels he was born to be a nurse because “I have a burning desire to help people.”

His parents traveled from Peru to see their son receive his associate degree.

After graduation, Zuniga hopes to work with a group like Doctors Without Borders, who care for those injured in wars and disasters. But he also wants to continue his education and become a licensed nurse practitioner, with a passion to work in an emergency room or intensive care unit.

Zuniga is bilingual and a gender minority in nursing – only 15 percent of nurses are males. “You might have a different perspective on some things, but I think if you’re a nurse and you’re working with other nurses, you have a combined goal and that’s to produce better results for the patients,” he said.

Zuniga described CMC as having a “very unique micro culture.”

“I didn’t meet one person that had no desire to help students grow,” he said. “Everyone worked together to help me and that made me stay at CMC.”

Cancer survivor comes full circle

Michelle Spidell survived cancer and was inspired to make a difference by her healthcare provider’s passion and compassion.

Spidell and her husband opened a Jimmy John’s restaurant in 2012 and she was diagnosed with cancer just three months later.

photo- Michelle Spidell with her husband Matt

Michelle Spidell with her husband Matt after receiving her associate degree in nursing at Colorado Mountain College Spring Valley on May 6. She survived cancer and was inspired to make a difference. This year, 54 nursing students graduated from CMC’s program at Spring Valley and Breckenridge. Photo Ed Kosmicki

“I think it ended up saving my life, because I was busting my tail in the restaurant and it made me slow down,” she said. “While undergoing treatment, I was just blown away by the care I received at Valley View Hospital [in Glenwood Springs] and Shaw Cancer Center [in Edwards].”

Spidell wanted to give back, so began taking CMC classes in 2014 while she was still undergoing cancer treatment.

The nursing program recently helped bring her life full circle: during her final set of nursing school rotations, Spidell shadowed the same oncology nurse at Calaway-Young Cancer Center who helped treat her. In July, Spidell will begin working in the nurse residency program at the cancer center.

Spidell, 42, also plans to earn a bachelor’s degree at CMC. Her medical interest was also spurred by her father, a now-retired family practice doctor, who takes an active role in her education by frequently mailing her articles about current medical advancements, which they enjoy discussing.

“I remember he’d work really hard and for long hours,” Spidell said, but watching her dad did not let that deter her from seeking her goal.

Spidell said she loved her classmates, teachers, staff and the CMC community at Spring Valley, especially for being local and accessible.

“I’m not sure if I had to go to Denver to go to nursing school that I would have done it,” she said. “I’m so grateful to have this program so close.”