A trip to SFA in spring 2003 started Gaona in that direction. As a first-generation college student, Gaona said she fell in love with SFA on a campus visit and loved Nacogdoches and the small-town feel. “I knew it was my home for the next four years.”

In addition to pursing a bachelor’s degree in biology and a minor in Spanish, Gaona also was involved in many extracurricular activities at SFA, including Student Activities Association and serving as a Jack Camp counselor. She also was elected Homecoming queen in 2007.

After she graduated in 2008, she enrolled at The University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston and received her Bachelor of Science in respiratory care. She later became a registered respiratory therapist.

Today, Gaona has transitioned back to the place where her love of health care started—Texas Children’s Hospital. There, she is a member of an elite neonatal and pediatric intensive care team that travels by jet to patients more than 100 miles from the hospital and ambulance for distances less than 100 miles to help save infants and children in critical need of medical care.

“I have been a member of the Kangaroo Crew since 2012,” Gaona said. “We are a critical care team of specialized nurses, respiratory therapists and emergency medical technicians who transport, assess and treat infants and children needing specialized medical care.”

Based at Texas Children’s, the team receives transport and treatment calls from hospitals all over the world. The farthest she’s traveled is Guatemala City, Guatemala.

As a respiratory therapist, Gaona is responsible for assisting the patient with breathing, which may include intubating the patient, securing X-rays to ensure proper intubation and patient ventilation

“I analyze my patient’s age, weight and disease factors (if any), and that helps provide the information I need to determine the size of the endotracheal tube the patient needs and how much air volume he or she requires based on blood gas numbers. En route, we are in contact with the hospital’s staff and physicians for further instructions on specific care the patient may require,” Gaona said.

Quite often, the team is faced with critical patients when they arrive at an outlying facility. “Many of them may need corrective or transplant surgeries, which the outlying facilities are unable to provide. Together, my teammates and I work quickly and efficiently to stabilize and treat them as we travel to a facility that can meet their medical needs.”

According to Tonya Jack, registered nurse and clinical manager of the Kangaroo Crew, Gaona is a professional who strives to set a positive example. “During transport of our critically ill patients, Julia ensures the patient receives the best possible care. She comes to work with a positive attitude and readily shares her knowledge with others. She goes above and beyond what is asked of her.”

The Kangaroo Crew’s mascot is named Katie. Gaona explained that the kangaroo is the perfect animal to represent the group. “Katie is swift on her feet and fiercely protects her babies inside her pouch—just like we do when we pick up our sick babies.”

In addition to treating and transporting the children, the Kangaroo Crew also makes it its mission to keep parents informed of their child’s condition.

“One parent is always permitted to travel along with us and their child,” Gaona said. “We really try to communicate and alleviate parents’ anxiety by educating them about what is happening and what is being done while we’re en route.”

Gaona’s ability to speak fluent Spanish also is a benefit. She recalls the language barrier between her Spanish-speaking parents and the mostly English-speaking medical team when her brother was born.

“Trying to explain the diagnosis and procedures to my parents in their non-native language in a way they could understand the complexities of what was occurring was very difficult,” she said. “When your child is sick, you need answers. It is a blessing to be able to step in.”

When she’s not working with the Kangaroo Crew, Gaona assists in the hospital’s pediatric intensive care unit. She also has two other jobs. She is a respiratory therapy clinical instructor at UTMB-Galveston and works part-time for a pulmonary specialist. She’s also planning for her wedding next summer.

“My fiancé, Alejandro Calvo, proposed in May 2014 in Cabo San Lucas while we were scuba diving. He had the proposal written out on a waterproof tablet. We dove to the bottom of the ocean, and he got down on one knee,” she said. “He even had a photographer in on it, and he captured the whole thing.”

Gaona said her future plans also include advancing her education. “I see me continuing to teach, and I’d love to some day work toward my master’s degree in education. I’m also contemplating going back to school to become a physician assistant. My life’s mission is to continue to pursue a career where I can help people. It’s my way of paying tribute to my brother.”