Albany Med Nurse Inspired by Mother’s Brave Battle with AIDS

Jessica Zajesky’s patient received the difficult news of his HIV diagnosis at the worst imaginable time: March 2020. The nation was in the early throes of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Already facing an uncertain future and isolated for six weeks gripped with fear of contracting another possibly even more deadly virus, her patient just needed a hug.

The registered nurse at Albany Med’s Division of HIV Medicine had a flashback. Mary Kahl, her mother, had contracted AIDS in 1986. Undaunted, her mother bravely battled the disease and its unfair stigma while raising public awareness and understanding. In 1991, Kahl died at age 33, leaving behind four young children. Zajesky was just 14 at the time.

Zajesky considered how emotionally isolated her mother must have felt with her nurses always having to gown up, just as her patient was now. “So I sat with him, I held him and we cried together. As much as he needed medical care, he needed hope, acceptance and assurance at that moment,” she said. “To be able to give some of that to him was so rewarding.”

Inspired to become a nurse by the comfort and care Albany Med nurses delivered to her mother, Zajesky has provided hope and supported the medical and emotional needs of her HIV-positive patients for the past four years. “For me, the empathy that goes along with nursing is awesome,” said the past DAISY Award winner who started her nursing career in 2004. “I get as much out of it as my patients do. Some of the interactions I’ve had with patients here, I think, have helped me heal.”

Each year, HIV Medicine sees approximately 1,500 patients from northeastern New York and western New England at its Albany office. Albany Med remains the only state-designated AIDS Center in the region. The clinic focuses on HIV disease treatment and prevention for area patients.

Zajesky recalled being “blown away” by the personal investment doctors, nurses and staff have in their patients when she first started at the clinic. It’s these daily personal interactions that continue to make her proud to be part of the HIV Medicine team. “Every day, I see meaningful interactions that make me so grateful that I chose to come work here.”

Cyndi Miller, MD, medical director of HIV Medicine, said Zajesky is an invaluable member of the team who displays “remarkable compassion” in counseling HIV patients struggling with prejudice and feelings of isolation and sadness. At the clinic, “you really have to manage all sorts of different people, and I think Jessica does that really well.”

So what would Zajesky’s mother think of her remarkable daughter today?

“She would have been proud of me no matter what,” said Zajesky, now the mother of two sons, 14 and 21, “but I think if she could see the work I do now and the positive impact I’ve made in people’s lives, she would be beyond proud.”