Zahra Paikar has a Bachelor of Science in Public Health from Dominican University of California in San Rafael, California, and a Master of Science in Nursing, Clinical Nurse Leadership from the University of San Francisco located in Orange, California. Zahra shared about her experiences as a nurse and the book she wrote, “The ABCs of NCLEX-RN and Exit HESI Test Success.”
Q: Tell me a bit about your journey. How did you get into nursing?
It had been my lifelong dream to be a nurse. Both of my grandparents had cancer and helping my mother care for my grandfather, who had lung cancer, as a teenager made me decide to become a nurse. I have compassion for patients who are dealing with acute and chronic illnesses. I understand how difficult it is as demonstrated by my experience in a multitude of clinical settings. I believe my extensive internship, volunteer experiences and work experience in clinical settings had prepared me for a career in nursing and showed me the best parts of my character.
Q: Tell me about your experience as a nurse.
Most recently, I was a nurse for a biotechnology company named Quantgene in Pasadena, California, where I did COVID-19 testing on college campuses and movie production sites. Prior to that, I was a patient care technician at Providence St. Joseph Mission Hospital in Laguna Beach, California, where I worked in the medical-surgical and intensive care units and the emergency department. All in all, I had an amazing experience working for both companies and met a lot of incredible people. However, I would say it’s especially stressful working as a nurse during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Q: Tell me about your book.
The book is about the NCLEX-RN and Exit HESI exams and the content of these huge exams in a study guide format. Additionally, you can use it as a reference for any core content you come across throughout nursing school and so much more, such as chapters on test-taking strategies, fundamentals of nursing and medical-surgical nursing. There are a few chapters I added later including Saunders q-bank questions and answers, personal nutrition and fitness and mental health and wellness. The last two I specifically added because nutrition, fitness, mental health and wellness are close to my heart — things most nursing students struggle with and ultimately the key to achieving holistic health. After all, health is multidimensional.
Q: What inspired you to write it?
It’s a funny story actually. I was studying for the NCLEX-RN exam and during one of my tutoring sessions, I showed a chapter on the cardiovascular system to my tutor and mentor. She was in awe. In fact, she said that this was genius. When I told her it was my study guide, she asked about the number of pages and words. At the time, it was 300 pages and 80,000 words. Coming from her — a nurse practitioner, educator and tutor — it was high praise. She told me to publish it. I did my research on it, created a book proposal and found a reputable company. And here I am today, a soon-to-be self-published author. So, it’s not a study guide — the book is too long for that. It’s a condensed, study-guide version of two prominent nursing textbooks.
Q: What obstacles have you faced and how did you overcome them?
In the past, when I was a nursing student at Dominican University of California, I had a professor I was really fond of at the time. I believe she taught a pharmacology course, and she told me that I should consider an alternate profession because I had trouble passing a medical calculations exam. If you are a nurse or have any nursing background, you know that dosage calculations are quite difficult at first. However, the math itself is fairly simple. The wording is mostly what threw me off at the time. Had I listened to her — I remember that day in great detail — it could have been a defining moment for me. I felt defeated.
As far as being an author, self-publishing has been quite difficult as opposed to going with traditional publishing. I feel like it’s been more challenging than I thought it would be initially. I personally edited my book at least a handful of times and I have to do my own marketing. While there are publishing packages and resources available, they are not only quite costly, but also nobody knows the medical terminology and formatting of my book like I do. So, do your research like I had to do and explore all of your options and don’t be afraid to outsource. Although this experience was challenging, I have learned so much every step of the way and I wouldn’t want to have had it any other way. Also, I had to approve everything and had a say on every aspect of my book.
Q: You also mentioned you are a fitness enthusiast. Can you speak into what role that plays in your life?
As far as the book is concerned, I did create a chapter on personal fitness and nutrition and I give resources, advice and step-by-step instructions on how I came to the level I am at now and a fitness plan just so people have an idea of where to get started. I would consider myself an athlete — I played soccer for most of my life — so when I came to the level where I wanted to level up — this was, I would say, at the beginning of COVID-19 — I first got a trainer at 24-Hour Fitness around 2019-20. She was great. I learned a lot from her, and that was over the course of seven months. Every month was so funny — I would go to the gym and I would be like, “I just want it for one month” or “Let’s do a three-month plan,” and then three months would pass and I would be like, “Let’s do three more months. I really love this.” Honestly I can say that at the time, my mental health was great. I generally just felt so great about myself and my self-confidence and just felt so healthy in every aspect of my life.
That made a really big impact on my life. Now, it’s been four months since I got another personal trainer and I’ve been working with him and it’s definitely a game changer. I got the tools necessary from personal training and applied it to my life and not only as a person, but also in a nursing aspect. I kind of applied it to the nursing world when I was writing the book. I just thought, “What were the struggles that I experienced during nursing school? What are some tools I used if I was struggling with test-taking anxiety? What are some things I identified with my classmates and what they experienced?” These are things that are taboo and not everyone will open up to you and say they are experiencing this.
Q: How do you balance your different roles?
I’d like to think that all of my different roles can be done simultaneously with hard work and dedication. As a nurse, I would like to be a lifelong learner and educator. As a fitness enthusiast, I strongly believe that fitness, nutrition and wellness are fundamental in living a wholesome and balanced life. Whether you study long hours as a nursing student sitting at the library or do three 12-hour shifts, being fit, having good nutrition and practicing wellness are key in being successful. Also, you can practice what you preach in nursing practice.
And I would say a good work-and-play balance is essential in everything you do so you don’t burn yourself out, and to have a well-balanced life and be present. I love hiking, traveling, art and photography in my spare time.
Q: What are your future plans and long-term goals?
In the future, whether I decide to go back to school or publish another book, or become a personal trainer, I still want to be a nurse, an educator and a fitness enthusiast. I like helping people in any way that I can and that will never change.
Q: What advice would you give other women based on your experiences?
In any of the many roles I play, everything is doable with passion and perseverance. It’s okay to fall, but get yourself back up. And never be afraid to ask for help when you need it, whether that means getting a study group, linking up with your professors after hours or seeking a tutor or a mentor. I could not be where I am today without the help of others.
As far as nursing schools are concerned, when it comes to picking a school, do your due diligence. Research their HESI scores, NCLEX pass rates, support systems in place and so on. As a nursing tutor, I am patient with my students and I tell them that it’s OK to feel what they feel but that they will get through this with help and guidance.