SEBRING — Zoila Leon has been nursing for almost 40 years and has found it a wonderful career that she would do all over again if she had it to do.

She called it “humbling” to get the Highlands News-Sun 2018 Highlander Nurse of the Year Award.

“I wasn’t expecting it,” Leon said Tuesday. “I always thought I was a good nurse until my daughter got sick.”

Leon, mother of two and grandmother of five, said her daughter, Cristina, got sick at 13 and they found out she had a rare kidney disease.

For 21 years, her daughter was in and out of the hospital — in intensive care, being intubated, having multiple surgeries and even a stroke at one point.

On Dec. 12, 2009, while working on her Master of Science in Nursing, Leon donated her left kidney to her daughter.

“I took my master’s exam early,” she said, adding, “It was such a joy to be able to give my daughter a chance to live.”

Cristina did, for another seven years. She died Oct. 8, 2016.

“It changes everything when you’re the one waiting outside the operating room,” Leon said, staying overnight and waiting for a bed. “It truly changes (you) because you see a different perspective. We are patient advocates.”

“I love taking care of people,” Loen added.

She found that calling at age 14, as a candy-striper at a county hospital in New Jersey, which is where her family settled when they arrived in the United States in 1967.

Leon said she was born in Cuba, her family went to Spain, and when they emigrated to the United States, she was 8. She had her parents and a younger brother and couldn’t speak any English.

After high school and her job as a candy-striper, she went straight to nursing school at Southern Adventist University, graduating with an associate degree in nursing in 1980.

Leon said she thought she wanted to be a missionary, but that didn’t work out at the time. She went back for her bachelor and master degrees, graduating with honors with her master’s in nursing education in 2010.

She has worked in critical care, neonatology and as part of a transport team. When she got a call from a recruiter about the administrative director position for the Emergency Department at what was Florida Hospital Heartland Division, now AdventHealth Sebring, she felt it was God’s way of letting her know where to go next.

She did get to go on mission trips, though. Many years ago, she and a medical team went to Mexico to help heal cleft lips and cleft palates.

Recently, she went with a team to Limon, Honduras, to help at three clinics, over Mother’s Day. They helped 447 people, she said.

“It was a wonderful experience,” Leon said. “I plan to go back.”

Nursing is her passion and her calling, but Leon also leans on her daughter.

“She was amazing,” Leon said. “She taught me a lot.”

AdventHealth Sebring was the sponsor of the Highlander Awards banquet, held last month at Seven Sebring Raceway Hotel. AdventhHealth was the sponsor of the Nurse of the Year award.

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