By Matt Skoufalos

At the age of five, Cookie Sanchez was hospitalized for a month with third-degree burns. While in recovery, she felt the compassionate attention of the nurses who tended to her, and from that moment, knew that she wanted to repay the kindness someday. At 13, she volunteered as a hospital candy striper, but was quickly frustrated by the limitations of the position (“I was only allowed to give water to the patients,” Sanchez recalled).

By 17, she was a single mother, and becoming a nurse suddenly became less of an aspirational career and more of an opportunity to provide a stable living for herself and her child. With focused intention, Sanchez completed her CNA certificate, and worked for a decade as a nurse’s aide. As the demands of her profession increased, Sanchez returned to school to complete her LPN license, and then again to get her bachelor’s degree in nursing (RN). With that education under her belt, she spent another 12 years working in a liver transplant unit at Lourdes Medical Center in Camden, New Jersey, one of the most dangerous cities in the country.

“It was scary,” Sanchez said. “I said to myself, ‘I have a baby at home, I can only work night shifts because I have to take care of her during the day.’”

She remembered that time in the ICU as “the most amazing 12 years of my life;” a balance of intimidating and rewarding experiences. Her patients were in need of such critical care that she would spend an entire 12-hour shift tending to one at a time. Sanchez later worked as a charge nurse, a case manager, and served on some leadership committees, but still searched for opportunities to give back to the local community from which Lourdes drew its patients. Last year, she left the ICU for a clinical manager’s role supervising home health aides at Bayada of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, a job in which she feels more closely connected to changing people’s health habits before they fall ill.

“What I do now, I love,” Sanchez said. “The struggle was on when I was 17. Now I’m 54 and the struggle is still on, but it’s getting better. I’m giving it all I got.”

For Sanchez, education was one of the only ways to win that struggle, and it’s a message to which she frequently returns in her mentorship of younger nurses. In a family of 12 siblings, she’s the only one to have earned a college degree. She’s frequently leveraged her bilingual expertise in connecting with both clients and coworkers, and six years ago, joined the National Association of Hispanic Nurses (NAHN). Last year, she was named president-elect of its Philadelphia chapter, a position from which she hopes to help create more opportunity for young nurses who may share her experiences.

Sanchez said that she tells young working nurses, “It’s not enough to work and get paid,” and encourages them to carry forward the spirit of community education among their peers who are starting out in the field.

A shortfall in money that once was available to pursue a career in nursing has left many young nursing students unqualified for entry-level positions, the requirements for which now may include bachelor’s degree programs. Part of the issue is that institutions may no longer fund advanced degree programs to the levels they once did; even veteran staff who may have been working in the field for years no longer have a guarantee of retaining their positions without completing higher-education curricula, she said.

“I have a couple students in my organization who are having a hard time getting a job as a new nurse,” Sanchez said. “There’s such a shortage and yet because you’re a new nurse, they give you a hard time. We see a lot of graduate nurses who only have an associate degree, and a lot of places are looking for bachelor’s degrees; a lot of facilities are requiring a BSN. They’re sending people back to school to get a bachelor’s degree if they want to maintain their status [in management].”

To that end, NAHN devotes a significant amount of time and effort collecting money to help more Hispanic nurses enter the field and retain their positions. Its fundraising typically generates scholarships for at least three students to continue their nursing education. Sanchez estimated that Hispanic nurses comprise about 15 percent of the national nursing population, and yet the need for bilingual caregivers to address health education concerns and tend to non-English-speaking patients has never been greater: that’s why NAHN also provides money to subsidize public health screenings.

“When we do health screenings, we ask patients, ‘What are your numbers?’ ‘Do you have a history of high blood pressure?’ and they don’t understand,” Sanchez said. “That’s not enough for us. That’s not education.”

With better communication, Sanchez said she and her cohorts can help reduce the waste associated with ER-first primary care, illnesses caused by contravening pharmaceutical regimens, and similar issues.

“We need to help them understand the medication they’re taking; try to keep them away from the emergency room; try to save the hospital some money,” she said.

“I see these single women who are out there trying to make a living,” Sanchez said. “I get to encourage these girls to continue their education. We need them to understand that there’s a [nursing] shortage, the language barrier is important, and we need to educate and give back to our community.”

After beginning her career at a time when nurses primarily were hired to take orders from physicians, these are issues to which she could never have foreseen herself having a hand in shaping the solutions.

“We’ve come a long, long way,” she said.

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