After losing her home to the devastating tornado that struck central Arkansas on March 31, a graduating UA Little Rock student and mother of four from Little Rock is looking forward to the positive things in life, including starting a new career as a nurse.
Johna “Paula” Rocha, who will graduate with an associate degree in nursing this spring, arrived home on March 31 in the Colony West neighborhood after passing the last test for her critical care class. When she heard the tornado siren go off, she rushed to the basement with her one-year-old daughter and dog.
“I usually don’t think anything of tornado sirens,” she said. “Within 10 minutes of us going to the basement and taking cover, our house was demolished. Our house is completely uninhabitable, and the car was completely totaled.”
Luckily, no one in Rocha’s family was injured, and her three older children were at school at the time of the tornado. She was overwhelmed by the amount of support she received from the American Red Cross, FEMA, churches, family members, friends, classmates, instructors, and strangers.
“My nursing instructors would email me every day to make sure I was okay,” Rocha said. “My kids’ school donated money to us, and they’ve been amazing. My friend who lives in Conway is a travel nurse working in Chicago right now. She let us stay in her house until we could find a rental house.”
Losing her home to a tornado is not the first tragedy Rocha has overcome. A past battle with cancer is what inspired her to become a nurse.
“In 2018, I was diagnosed with lymphoma,” she said. “I went through chemotherapy and was hospitalized a lot. This experience motivated me to go into the medical field. I was treated kindly and with compassion, and I knew that is what I wanted to do for others.”
Rocha began her college career at UA Little Rock in 2019, taking prerequisite classes for the nursing program while she was still battling lymphoma.
She had two of her children while in college, Charlie, 3, and Layla, 1. The School of Nursing’s newest advanced pediatric manikin, CAE Aria, is actually named after Rocha’s daughter. The School of Nursing received more than 30 suggestions for potential names for the manikin via Facebook. After the faculty narrowed it down to four finalists, nursing students voted for the winner. Rocha suggested the winning name of Charlie.
“Charlie keeps us on our toes,” she said. “She is my wild child, much like the manikins keep nursing students on their toes in sim. I think it’s the perfect fit for a pediatric simulation.”
While Rocha said it’s been challenging balancing school and being a mom, she’s thankful to the university’s Child Care Connections program, which provides child care funding for eligible students through a federal grant from the U.S. Department of Education. The program also helps connect student parents with the resources and support they need to finish college. For Rocha, the program provided funding for her three oldest children to attend Westover Hills Preschool so she would have more time to spend going to class, completing clinicals, and doing homework.
“I cannot give the Child Care Connections program enough praise, and I thank them every time I see them,” Rocha said. “The whole time I’ve been in school, I’m hustling every week to find someone to watch my kids. I would not have been able to afford to send my kids to Westover without them, and I wouldn’t have been able to go to class. I don’t know if I would have graduated without this program. I hope more people go and get help from them.”
After graduation, Rocha will begin work as a nurse in the Surgical Intensive Care Unit at Baptist Health and begin her bachelor’s degree program in nursing at UA Little Rock in the fall. Eventually, Rocha would like to work in women’s health, citing obstetrics as her favorite clinical rotation.
Throughout her journey to graduation, Rocha said her kids have been her biggest motivators for success. In addition to Charlie and Layla, Rocha is the mom of Olivia, 10, and Analise, 5.
“My kids are so excited about my graduation,” Rocha said. “They have been talking about it for months. Their dad is a nurse, and they think it’s so cool that their mom is going to be a nurse too. They are excited about going to the graduation. They always say, ‘I’m so proud of you.’ They have been my motivators through all of it.”