When we think of the nursing profession, different meanings come to mind, but there is a common factor: the value of nurses in individual and collective health.
Every year, AL DÍA Top Nurses has the mission of highlighting men and women who serve in the trenches of nursing institutions, since it is essential to promote the exemplary contribution they make to society from their different fields.
One example is Wanda Nolasco, current Vice President of Patient Services and responsible for regulatory safety and compliance at the Behavioral Wellness Center at Girard.
With over twenty years at the institution and over thirty as a nurse practitioner, she has been on the front lines of those addressing a multitude of crises and health-related issues throughout her career.
From her work as a critical care nurse, nursing professor and research coordinator in Puerto Rico, to various leadership positions at the Behavioral Wellness Center at Girard in Philadelphia, Nolasco has excelled in a wide variety of roles.
Another example is David Álvarez-Sánchez, a first-year nursing student at the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing, who has begun to establish himself as a leader in his own right.
As co-founder of a Hispanic organization at his former institute and research coordinator for the COVID Testing, Resources, and Community Engagement (TRACE) project, Álvarez-Sánchez has demonstrated his ability to make a positive impact, despite his young age.
Although both are at very different stages in their lives and careers, Nolasco and Álvarez-Sánchez share the same desire to help others. That is why they have been selected as winners of the Lifetime Achievement Award and the Grade Student Leader Award, respectively, for the AL DÍA Top Nurses 2022 event.
Compassion and service are two elements that Wanda Nolasco has always lived by. Born and raised in eastern Puerto Rico, she has considered them essential.
When asked how he had developed those qualities, he said they came from his family: “Everyone, in one way or another, we were always there for everyone,” he replied. That heritage would help guide his educational path and, later, his career: “I realized I wanted to help people.”
That discovery led Nolasco to attend the Pontifical Catholic University of Puerto Rico, where she studied Nursing, convinced that such a career would be the best way to combine her compassion and desire to serve in a way that would benefit communities.
After graduating, Nolasco worked in an emergency and critical care unit, but soon realized that nursing services went far beyond emergency rooms and ICUs. So, when his mother started having mental health problems, he decided to go back to school at the Pontifical Catholic University and study Psychiatric Nursing and Mental Health.
From there, he took the teachings to another hospital in Puerto Rico, where he helped create a new program. His subsequent dedication to research would be the catalyst for his coming to the United States.
In 2001, the former North Philadelphia Health System (NPHS) went to Puerto Rico in a recruitment effort. “I just happened to go in for the interview and they recruited me,” Nolasco recalled.
Since 2002, she has become one of the best-known faces in the Hispanic nursing community, at what has since been renamed the Behavioral Wellness Center at Girard.
“I grew up as a leader in the North Philadelphia Health System,” he said. Furthermore, he indicated that it was his time there that increased his interest in business and management in that field. It was what led her to complete her MBA with an emphasis in health services from DeVry University.
Throughout his 20 years at the Behavioral Wellness Center, Nolasco has seen many things and faced many challenges.
The most recent years have been some of the most difficult, he said. In 2016, the organization filed for bankruptcy, and the efforts to file for bankruptcy have been innumerable. However, according to Nolasco, that’s what helped the organization rebuild itself with a clearer focus on drug, alcohol and behavioral services.
“We decided to change brands, providing a service to the community in the face of what is now one of the biggest pandemics, apart from COVID-19: the opioid pandemic,” he said.
The Behavioral Wellness Center uses innovation to offer treatment services to people with mental health and substance use problems.
During the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the organization was able to adapt and transform some of its existing units into disease units and provide additional services to those in need.
When asked what the most satisfying aspect of the nursing field and the work she does was, Nolasco made it clear: waking up and seeing that you are able to help at least one person. “Just seeing someone get better, or get an income to get off the streets, or come home…that’s what fills me up,” he said.
Although she was surprised when she learned of the honor of being the winner of the AL DÍA Nurses Lifetime Achievement Award, Nolasco acknowledged that it was an opportunity to reflect on her career and its impact: “Honestly, it made me realize that what I do every day has a meaning. It makes me very happy to see that some people see me like that. I don’t even realize it, I do it because I love it.”
For his part, David Álvarez-Sánchez is very young, but he already has big plans for his own future as a nursing professional.
A nursing student at UPenn, Álvarez-Sánchez knew in eighth grade what career she wanted to pursue. “I was lucky enough to have a Career Day, we had contact with police officers and firefighters, and a lot of different [profesiones], but then with a psychiatric nurse who worked in a mental health center. I remember saying ‘Wow, I’ve heard of a nurse, but I’ve never heard of a nurse practitioner,’” she noted.
His in-depth explanations and details about his work greatly impressed Álvarez-Sánchez and served as a catalyst for his career choice.
“I have always said that my vocation is to help people and I know that it can be done in a lot of different races. But after doing my first clinical rotation last semester in the spring, I became fascinated with interacting with patients, with being able to see and help people in their most vulnerable situations, and with the power of serving as a support system that not everyone has access to otherwise,” he added.
When asked about his goals, he is clear about them, both short-term and long-term. In the short term they are completing their bachelor’s degree and getting their license to become a registered nurse. “In the long term, I see myself as really capable of working in a variety of communities, whether through my clinical rotations or already as a registered nurse,” he said. He, too, hopes to pursue higher education after earning his bachelor’s degree.
For Álvarez-Sánchez, diversity is extremely important in the UPenn nursing program and within the nursing field.
As a Latino individual and aspiring nurse, he represents two underrepresented groups in the field: “I think no matter where you work, you’re always going to come across patients from different backgrounds, beliefs, and education, so being able to put yourself together in their place, even when there is no relationship, it is really important”.
“If you have diverse nurses who understand, or can relate to the patient population a little bit more, it’s much easier for them to provide care that’s really tailored to their experiences and the issues they’re facing,” she added.
During the 2022 AL DÍA Top Nurses event, Álvarez-Sánchez will receive the Grade Student Leader Award.
Regarding what a leader is, Álvarez-Sánchez responded that “he is someone who is always willing to grow and learn. I’m also a big believer in the idea that your community and the people who support you can help you become a leader because without the people who support you, you’re not really a leader. If you’re alone, there’s no one to lead, and that’s something I think a lot of people tend to forget.”
Although he will receive an individual honor, in his mind his leadership has more impact if others can advance further, particularly as a peer advisor within the Penn School of Nursing. “It’s really important to me to be able to let them know about the resources that are out there. I think that many times, as a minority, you don’t have access to those resources or to different opportunities, and that’s where my interest in serving the community and working to help the people who are in the community comes from. I just want to be able to let others know about the opportunities that exist.”
He concluded that “it is great that I have been awarded the prize, but I think it is very important to see how we can help others and how everyone manages to break through.”