NEWARK, NJ - Meena Patel had been living in the United States for less than a decade when her husband died. At the time, she worried about how she would raise her two young children with no help.
"It was scary. I didn't know what was going to happen next," said the Parsippany woman. "I didn't know if I would be able to pay rent. It happened all of a sudden. I thought how many hours will I have to work to provide food and roof for my children."
The struggles that defined her life as a young widow helped shape who she would later become in life - a caring and compassionate nurses' assistant at Saint Michael's Medical Center in Newark.
"Life has been a struggle, but let me tell you, every time I ever do anything from my heart, God has rewarded me," said Patel, who is deeply religious. "I believe in Karma very strongly. You must to the right thing always."
Patel was named the employee of the month for February at Saint Michael's for doing right by patients.
Patel said she is guided by one principal: The person she is caring for could be a family member.
"Every day I come to work very happy," Patel said. "I provide patients care with kindness, love and respect and I go home very happy that I did something good for somebody."
Janice Learn, the nursing supervisor on A4, the unit where Patel works, said patients consistently speak glowingly of Patel.
"Meena is a hard worker who often stays if needed after her shift," Learn said. "Her coworkers enjoy working with her and the patients can't say enough good things about the care she provides."
Patel's first job was with Saint James Hospital in Newark's Ironbound. Though she was trained as a nurse in India, she could not work immediately as a nurse in New Jersey without further schooling, testing and licensing. So she started out as a nurses' assistant with the goal of one day becoming a nurse.
But when her husband died of a brain stem infarction in 1998, her plans changed and she focused on raising her children, who were 4 and 9 at the time.
In 2008, when Saint James was closed, Patel applied for jobs at other hospitals, including Saint Michael's.
"When I came home and heard on the answering machine that Saint Michael's was offering me a full-time job, it was the happiest day," Patel said. "I was a single mom. I was raising two kids by myself without any help. It was so scary."
At the time, Cathedral Healthcare System, which owned Saint Michael's, Saint James and Columbus Hospital, sold the three hospitals to Catholic Health East, which closed Saint James and Columbus. Like Patel, a number of Saint James and Columbus employees found work at Saint Michael's. Prime Healthcare purchased the hospital in May 2016.
Including her time at Saint James, Patel has 30 years of service.
At one point, Patel, who never remarried, worked as many as three jobs to save enough money to send her children to college.
Patel's children are now grown. Her son graduated from NJIT with a degree in mechanical engineering and was recently married. Her daughter is graduating from Rutgers University with a pharmacy degree.
"I feel myself a little bit lonely," said Patel, who will soon be an empty nester. "But I know myself. I will do more volunteer hours. Because I came from India, I always admired Mother Theresa. I can't be Mother Theresa, but I can follow in her footsteps."