"I'm hoping this career sticks," she quipped as she sat in a narrow break room lined with lockers and stacked with medical textbooks at Melrose-Wakefield Hospital, where she has worked for two years.
But really, she said, "To date, becoming a nurse is the best decision I ever made."
She will celebrate that pride - alongside millions of colorful scrub-wearing comrades across the country - during National Nurses Week, May 6 through 12.
Mattola-Kiatos - a self-described overachiever who graduated from the Lawrence Memorial/Regis College Collaborative Associate of Science in Nursing Program and plans to pursue an advanced degree in nursing - is never short on praise for her job. "It's so personally rewarding," she said.
"I chose to do this. It wasn't something I fell into out of high school."
And she's hardly alone in her mid-career choice.
According to a 2002 survey by the Massachusetts Colleagues in Caring Collaborative, the mean age of graduating nursing students was 31.6.
David Schildmeier, spokesman for the Massachusetts Nurses Association, noted a few reasons for that trend: job security, better pay, and career satisfaction. "Many people come to nursing because they see meaning," he said.
That has been the case for Mattola-Kiatos. She said she gets the feeling at the end of every day that she's accomplished something. And despite the widely held belief that nurses do all the grunt work - emptying bed pans and changing bandages - she said there's a great deal of variety in her job.
For starters, she deals with a broad spectrum of patients, from those requiring hip or knee surgery to others who have pneumonia or appendicitis. "It's always something different," said Mattola-Kiatos, who often shows off pictures of her 85-pound Labrador, Wrigley, and is an avid Red Sox fan who wears her BoSox scrubs whenever knuckleballer Tim Wakefield pitches.
The challenge is in assessing the patient's needs, she said, from elders facing fears of dying to young moms fretting about day care.
"You spend time with patients and do everything in your power to meet their medical needs, but also their emotional needs," she said.
Generally, she works with four to five patients a day on Melrose-Wakefield's Med 4, a U-shaped complex with orange doors that smells of antiseptic, and the constant, soft beeping of various machines blending into the background. On a recent sun-soaked afternoon, she performed her rounds while mentoring new grads. Dressed in pink and green scrubs, a stethoscope slung around her neck, she mixed a batch of medicine at a counter, then entered a shaded room.
"Hi, my friend," she said with a smile to Albert D'Arco of Everett, an 80-year-old hunched on the bed in a hospital gown, his wrists wrapped in green, orange, and white hospital bands.
Calling him "Mr. D'Arco," Mattola-Kiatos inserted an IV into his right arm, pressed a button on a machine that beeped to life, and keyed in a series of numbers. "Are you 20?" she asked playfully before leaving the room. He laughed as he lay back in the bed, "Multiply that by 4."
Afterward, his son, Manny D'Arco of Winchester, described Mattola-Kiatos as "very professional, but very caring, too - which is lacking in a lot of healthcare professionals these days." He shrugged. "I feel better when she's up here."
Miguel Rivera, director of Med 4, agreed that Mattola-Kiatos has a certain way with patients. She's an "above and beyond type of employee," he said. She's "charismatic, with personality." Yet Mattola-Kiatos will tell you that it's the patients who "stick in my head." With some, "I could tell you what room they stayed in, their full name, everything about them."
Still, she described the frustrations of the job, as well. For instance, there are always puzzles in diagnosing patients' injuries and sicknesses, she said. And, not surprisingly, the hardest days on the floor are when people die. She remembers the first time that happened. Although she didn't know the patient and had never seen him before, she "just started to cry."
On the other hand, day-to-day business brings regular rewards - the patients with stomach pains who come in hunched over and leave with smiles and hugs, for instance; or others who require hip replacements and go home with the ability to walk (or even dance) again.
In those cases, she said, "I did my job."