Nurturing minds, transforming lives

Nurturing minds, transforming lives

Natalie Lewis ’22N and Evelyn Santos ’23N (MS) are nursing champions for their communities.

Natalie Lewis ’22N standing in front of a hospital bed and ivy drip

Natalie Lewis ’22N

Nurses have always been at the forefront of addressing health disparities and that’s a role Natalie Lewis ’22N and Evelyn C. Santos ’23N (MS), RN, PMHN-BC have never shied away from. They’ve both committed to making a difference as nurses by caring for the mental health and well-being of their communities.

Since finishing her bachelor’s degree in 2022, Lewis has been passionate about contributing to her community through psychiatric and mental health nursing—it’s her way of staying connected to her city. In addition to her studies, she is a per-diem member of the City of Rochester’s Person in Crisis Team, a group who accompanies police on mental health calls. She also previously worked as a nurse at the Monroe County Children’s Detention Center.

Lewis spends most of her week either at school or her two jobs as a nurse and emergency response social worker. Recently, she returned to the University of Rochester Medical Center as part of the Pediatric Behavioral Health & Wellness team.

Natalie Lewis ’22N standing in front the School of Nursing URMC sign

Natalie Lewis ’22N

“It’s always been mental health for me. That’s my niche,” said Lewis, who is currently pursuing her master’s degree in the family psychiatric-mental health nurse practitioner specialty. “It’s so important, especially for African American families. Most people will tell you— ‘you’re not depressed,’ or ‘you’re not stressed.’”

Growing up, Lewis said she experienced “old-school” beliefs about mental health in the Black community, but she has also seen attitudes start to shift. Her interest in mental health, combined with a natural gift for math and science, led Lewis to pursue her first bachelor’s degree in psychology at the University at Buffalo.

Afterward, Lewis knew she would need an advanced degree if she wanted to work in a clinical setting. She had considered pursuing a master’s in mental health counseling, but she also felt drawn to nursing. A job as a crisis specialist at Strong Memorial Hospital, where Lewis worked alongside the various members of a behavioral health team, helped confirm her interest in psychiatric nursing.

Nursing spoke to my caring, compassionate side, and who I am as a person,” Lewis said. “I love talking to people, relating with them, and learning about them.”

That has also been one of the most rewarding parts of her work as a nurse so far, at both the Monroe County Children’s Detention Center and the hospital. “I’m able to make an impact on the youth and have conversations with them about their current situation and how they can make changes in the future,” she said.

Continuing her education is one of Lewis’ proudest achievements. She is the youngest of six siblings, and the first to go to college. She is grateful not only for the chance to build a better future for herself, but to make her family proud as well.

“Seeing my mom happy and proud is the most important thing to me,” Lewis said. “I want to make her life easier and be able to take care of her. I like knowing she doesn’t have to worry about me.”

Evelyn C. Santos ’23N (MS), RN, PMHN-BC headshot

Evelyn C. Santos ’23N (MS), RN, PMHN-BC

When Santos joined the School of Nursing’s Leadership in Health Care Systems (LHCS) master’s program, she had already built a reputation at the University of Rochester Medical Center as a fierce advocate for underserved populations.

Her years of experience in psychiatric and mental health nursing have inspired her work. Santos is the former lead nurse of UR Medicine’s Lazos Fuertes Clinic, Upstate New York’s only bilingual outpatient mental health clinic. It’s a role that she developed and implemented herself, leveraging the ability of nurses to build strong ties with the communities they serve.

“Working with the Latino community was personally important to me. I knew my work made a significant impact on patient outcomes,” Santos said.

Research shows that to improve treatment outcomes, there is a need for increasing diversity in health care, which includes the psychiatric workforce. The most rewarding part of my role is being an advocate for cultural awareness and providing equitable health care services.”

Rochester’s Latino population has more than tripled since the 1980s, according to the Ibero-American Action League. Nationally, Hispanic and Latino communities in the U.S. can face unique barriers to mental health care, such as a lack of cultural competence among providers, immigration status, stigma, or language barriers.

Her LHCS capstone project focused on optimizing depression screenings among the local Latino community.

“The most rewarding part of the role is being an advocate for cultural awareness and providing equitable health care services,” she added. “I completed a needs assessment through a diversity, equity, and inclusion lens and implemented the utilization of iPads at my working site to capture depression screens electronically in Spanish,” she explained.

“This project provided an opportunity to improve depression screening rates among our Latino patient population, and also helped improve our collaborative decision-making strategies within the program I support.”

Santos’ graduate capstone is the latest highlight of a career defined by breaking barriers for this growing population. In addition to her role at the Lazos Fuertes Clinic, she served as a consultant to help expand UR Medicine’s Spanish-language neurology clinic, and created a guide dedicated to helping English-speaking nurses overcome language barriers that often interfere with care.

During her time at the School of Nursing, Santos was honored with the Paul J. Burgett Nursing Student Life Award, which recognizes a graduating student who enriches the School’s environment and serves as a positive catalyst for change.

Evelyn C. Santos standing next to a tv monitor with her name on it

Evelyn C. Santos ’23N (MS), RN, PMHN-BC

Just a few months after finishing the LHCS degree, Santos accepted a promotion within the Department of Psychiatry to a new role as a quality and education nurse. She looks forward to utilizing her nurse educator role to bring diversity, equity and inclusion efforts, trauma-informed care, and the impact of adverse childhood events (ACEs) to the forefront of the department’s educational curriculum.

Both Lewis and Santos knew they were in the right place at the University of Rochester School of Nursing.

Eager to widen her scope of practice as a nurse, Lewis already felt a strong sense of belonging during her time as an accelerated bachelor’s student. Santos knew she could advance her work as an advocate for health equity.

“I enjoy the community within the school,” Lewis said. “I have developed friendships in nursing school that I feel I will have for a lifetime.

“What stood out to me as I explored opportunities for my master’s degree was the UR School of Nursing’s mission to be an inclusive environment,” Santos recalled. “The School of Nursing makes diversity, equity and inclusion efforts a priority. As a minority student, this was important to me.”

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— By Gianluca D’Elia. Reposted with permission; March 2024