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The 2021 AL DÍA Top Nurses Forum & Awards virtual event took place May 26. Graphic: AL DÍA News. 
The 2021 AL DÍA Top Nurses Forum & Awards virtual event took place May 26. Graphic: AL DÍA News. 

“The true cream of the crop of the nursing profession in the region”

The 2021 AL DÍA Top Nurses virtual event put the spotlight on the local nurses of Latinx heritage raising the bar for what it means to be a nurse to patients,…

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Nurses have always played an important and critical role in our society. The past year has just magnified the impact and necessity nurses have on our health and well-being. 

During the 2021 AL DÍA Top Nurses Forum & Awards virtual event on May 26, the conversations brought to light included what it means to be a nurse, the experience of working on the frontlines during a year-long pandemic, the importance of representation within the healthcare profession, and more.

While each nurse and healthcare professional has a different backstory that has led them to the field and areas of expertise within the profession remain vast, the mission is consistent: to help others, to inform and guide, to provide care and to work towards getting individuals and families to live healthier lives. 

If Marybell Rodriguez, nurse practitioner in the department of cardiology at Einstein Medical Center and the recipient of the Community Hero award at the event had to describe what it takes to be a nurse in a single word, it would be passion.

“Passion to serve, passion to care, and passion to give,” she said. “Without passion, there’s nothing for us to do.”

The pandemic has really shown the level of passion so many nurses in the region have to help us all navigate and survive it together.

To Dr. Lia Ludan, assistant professor of nursing at Stockton University and a nurse practitioner at Cape Regional Medical Center, the role nurses have played during the pandemic has shown that nurses are truly “world changers.”

“We are the glue, we are the backbone of healthcare... a small portion of us can make a big change,” said Ludan.

With hope, strength, compassion, empathy and resilience, nurses can be the bridge that puts patients in more positive physical and mental states.  

Those adjectives are the same that can be used to describe the actions Valerie Caraballo, nurse practitioner, CEO & owner of Viva Care Solutions and community practice award recipient at the event, took during the early part of the pandemic.She said it reminded her why nursing was her profession of choice to begin with.

As a result of being laid off from both her jobs in the midst of the pandemic and feeling uneasy about seeing her fellow nurses endure the rigors of being on the frontlines, Caraballo overcame her fears, concerns and uncertainties and did something about it. 

“I decided to take the risk and dedicate myself to combat this virus,” she said. “I joined a team of civilians and military providers in a COVID-19 field medical hospital in Atlantic City, New Jersey.”

“There, our team cared for COVID-19 patients transferred from the local ICU to make room for sicker patients,” Caraballo added.  

That is just one example of the level of care and dedication it takes to be a nursing professional. 

If there is another conclusion to take away from the pandemic, it’s that it has also brought into the forefront the importance of having Hispanic nurses, and more nurses of color, in the field. 

Dr. Linda Maldonado, assistant professor at the M. Louise Fitzpatrick College of Nursing at Villanova University and academic practice award recipient at the event, has had her venture into nursing guided by health equity. 

With a career spanning 30 years, Maldonado witnessed closely the structural barriers that exist for patients of color, particularly in the Deep South, where she did her schooling and early practice. And it has had a profound impact on her.

“[It] really shaped who I am today and my desire to eradicate the effects of structural racism in our minority communities,” she said.  

Latinos have been more than twice as likely to get infected, be hospitalized by or die from COVID-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). For a variety of reasons, it has made the need for more bilingual and bicultural nurses more prevalent than ever before. 

These numbers are congruent with what Sofia Carreno, nursing professional development specialist for community engagement at Penn Medicine and community practice award recipient at the event, endured during her first nursing job as a teenager in Atlantic City. 

She was fascinated by how different the patient populations and medical conditions were between the city and suburbs and by ZIP code. Since then, she has been able to serve patients, families and communities most in need as an emergency nurse, nurse manager, health coach and nursing instructor. 

“To me, being a nurse means caring about the whole person by considering their culture, their language and where they’re coming from,” said Carreno.  

These nurse honorees, as well as the others, are paving the way for the next generation of future nursing professionals — the Emerging Leader award recipients at the event — who are also playing a critical role in raising awareness to this topic of representation and equity. 

Melina Lopez, junior nursing student at the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing, described how attending the school brought out a huge culture shock.

Going to schools all her life where most of the student body were of color meant, as she described, “there was no need to fight for a seat at the table” and there was “no threat to my identity [or] being recognized and respected in a classroom setting.”

“As I became more aware about my position within a PWI [predominantly white institution], I became more involved — not just within the Latinx community — but within the marginalized nursing community, too,” said Lopez. 

This eventually led to Lopez joining and later becoming president of the Minorities in Nursing Organization at Penn Nursing. 

Susy Suarez, a 2021 graduate of West Chester University School of Nursing and pediatric nursing assistant at Chester County Hospital, said she wants to use her platform as a nurse to help others. 

“I’m so excited to get out in the world and start my new career and really help others, motivate others and show, especially the Latino community, that you can do it,” she said. 

The generational influence that exists within the nursing field is what drives and helps move the profession forward. As a new generation of patients seek different forms of care, the new generation of nurses become that much more essential. 

Dr. Norma Martinez Rogers, professor at the University of Texas Health Science Center and Lifetime Achievement Award recipient at the event, was honored to receive the distinction, but her main focus is on providing the help, guidance and mentorship for the younger generation of nursing professionals to eventually get into the position to earn the same award in the future.

“I do believe we need to share. I can’t sit on a pedestal because I’m one of many and I didn’t get here alone,” she said. 

Given the level of help she received along the way of her five-decade-long career, she feels the responsibility to be that source of help for others. 

The 2021 AL DÍA Top Nurses event was just a small token and level of recognition for the sheer strength, resilience and compassion that nursing professionals display in the field each and every day. They are true heroes to our community, our region, our nation and throughout the entire world. 

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