Saturday, September 22, 2007

Pinay Pride - First Filipina Nurse Heads California Nurses Association

The Filipino nurse is truly world-class and Zenei Triunfo Cortez, a registered nurse originally from Makati has just taken her place in history. Last September 1, 2007, as part of the council of presidents, she became the first Filipino President of CNA/NNOC (California Nurses Association/Natonal Nurses Organizing Committee), the nation's premier organization of Filipino nurses. This marks a watershed moment for nursing, which has increasingly become a global profession marked by steady migration from the Philippines, as well as for the larger Filipino-American community, which now numbers more than 2 million people but is only beginning to acquire the social and political representation it deserves. Reflecting on the election, Cortez remarked, "I am deeply touched by the honor bestowed upon me by my fellow nurses. To have come so far in my life and now to share the responsibility of advocating for patients and RNs alike is nothing that I could have imagined."

Founded in 1903, the California Nurses Association, and its national arm, the National Nurses Organizing Committee, is one of the nation’s premiere nurses’ organizations and health care unions. One of the fastest growing health care organizations in the U.S., CNA/NNOC presently has 75,000 members in 40 states, representing nurses at scores of hospitals, clinics, and home health agencies. Since 2000, over 19,000 RNs at 50 hospitals have elected to affiliate with CNA.It is the largest and fastest-growing organization of direct care Registered Nurses in the country dedicated to providing a voice for nurses and a vision for healthcare.

It’s been a long and hard road for Tiunfo-Cortez who migrated to the United States in the early 70s. A brother who was with the U.S. Navy sponsored all nine Triunfo siblings together with their parents, Aniano Villote Triunfo and Jovita Celi Triunfo. Becoming a nurse was farthest from the young Zenei’s mind. “I did not know that I would become a nurse. However, I’ve been surrounded by a family of Registered Nurses. It started with my dad's youngest sister Linda, who was part of the RN Exchange program in the 60's and so was a first cousin Annie. One of my sisters, Cindy, is also a Registered Nurse,plus sisters in law.I have inspired my neice Melissa to become an RN also,” she relates.

Triunfo-Cortez went to school in Chicago and began her career as a Medical/Surgical RN after her graduation in 1980. In 1982 she decided to move to California. Over the last 27 years, her range of experience has included Oncology, Orthopedics, Telemetry and Critical Care. She is currently a Staff IV Nurse in the Post Anesthesia Care Unit at a hospital in San Bruno. Triunfo Cortez will never forget her earliest challenge as being only one of two Filipinos in her nursing school. “I had to work extra hard to prove that Filipinos could excel in their chosen careers.”

She says that she has always believed in the power of the CNA especially when in 1990, she was denied her current position.” CNA helped me through the grievance process and eventually I prevailed. From then on, I became a Nurse Representative to help fellow RNs resolve issues. I do not want them to go through what I went through.” Tiunfo Cortez says that having seen her struggle, fellow RNs encouraged her to "officially" speak on their behalf by running for office. “I took on the challenge because I want RNs especially Filipino RNs to speak up for their rights, advocate for their patients and themselves.I was elected to the State Board of Directors for 3 terms (2 years for each term) and then was elected to the Vice President position for 2 terms (also 2 years for each term). Each time election comes around, I together with other colleagues running for office do launch a campaign. Since most of our constituents know us, they continue to support us.”

The CNA has grown to a point where there is now a National arm -- called the National Nurses Organizing Committee (NNOC) . Members are spread out all over the United States. Triunfo Cortez, who is one of four presidents, explains that the scenario has prompted the organization to change the structure. “Given the fact that we now have members coast to coast, it will be too hectic for just one president to handle all the duties and responsibilities. We are also bedside RNs who see to it that our patients get the quality care they deserve. Having a council of presidents allows us to remain at the bedside and lead the organization. The council shares the job equally and it is a two-year term.” AS one of the presidents, Triunfo Cortes says that she will personally push for universal healthcare for all with a single standard of care and single payer. “I will also continue to pursue patient advocacy and advocacy for the nursing profession.”

The new CNA president remains a Pinoy at heart as she continues to speak Tagalog at home and subscribes to theFilipino Channel. Like many other Filipino migrants, their families live very close to one another. “There is a lot of family support. My mom who is 85 tends to cook a lot everyday, just in case us kids or grandkids will drop by to eat. My dad who is 89 spends a lot of time in his garden. He gives me healthy plants and I simply return it to him when it is dying.I still call my older siblings "kuya" and "ate". Support became especially important when she battled cancer almost five years ago. The love and support of her husband, Robert, who works for a major hotel chain, and her other family members helped her pull through one of the trying times of her life. It also helps, she says that she had excellent healthcare coverage.

“ I did not have to worry about running out of insurance coverage. I was off for 6 months and again because of our contract language, I was able to save up all the sick time I earned through the 25 years of my employment. I was cared for by my husband who never left my bedside and of course my family too. I went through 2 1/2 months of daily radiation therapy. All the love and support and my strong faith in God helped me get well. Being a patient allowed me to see first hand the incredible work RNs do everyday. I received good care. It was not difficult for me to navigate the healthcare system because I know the system. It will perhaps be different for those who do not know. But again as RNs, we are there for them.”

Earlier this year, Triunfo Cortez was home and spoke a local nursing college. We asked her for some pieces of advice to impart to young nurses desiring a better life overseas. She had a mouthful to say --

“For those RNs who desire to go abroad, please read the fine prints of your contract. Ask questions, get the answers in writing. Exploitation is on the rise. A very important question to ask is,"Just in case you do not pass the state boards, what will happen to your status?" Your employers need to provide orientation and training, especially with the new technology. Look for a mentor who could assist you in your new work place. There is usually a mother figure willing to take on that role. Do not be afraid to ask questions when you are unclear on things. Above all, do not just go into nursing because it will “pay off.” You need to have the passion for the profession and the patience to face different challenges everyday. You need to be aware of the diverse cultural backgrounds your patients will have. Learn to be assertive. Work on your communication skills. Love your career.”

This article was published in the GLOBAL PINOY section of the Philippine Daily Inquirer on September 16, 2007

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