How My Nursing Career Saved My Life


How My Nursing Career Saved My Life

How one nurse has become a light to her community

By Elizabeth Hanink, RN, BSN, PHN
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Eighteen, pregnant, not yet out of high school. Not an auspicious beginning, but that’s how Martha Romero starts her story. Today she is a nurse and college graduate with dreams of teaching other nurses. The transformation didn’t happen over night, and it wasn’t easy.

The distance between the Ramona Gardens Housing Project and White Memorial Hospital and Medical Center is less than two miles, yet to Romero and those who know her, it is a distance beyond measure. Now happily employed at that hospital, Romero still recalls the gangs, drugs and violence that took the lives of neighbors and family members. But those memories now serve a purpose: If she could crawl out of the projects and earn a college degree, so can others. “You can do it,” she is saying to one and, “You can help,” she is saying to another.

Romero started like most women in her neighborhood. Her own brothers were into drugs, and she witnessed dealing as an ordinary event. Gang rivalries were hard to ignore because they made the simple activities of life very complicated. For children in the project, just getting to school took perseverance. “If you walked you could get beat up, but if you took the bus there might be shooting. We used to sit like this,” Romero says as she crouches down with her hands over her head. Many of her peers gave up and dropped out.

But, somehow, Romero clung to the idea that an education would make a difference. Maybe it was her father reminding her of his third-grade instruction; maybe it was the memory of her mother who had immigrated with no formal schooling. Martha doesn’t really know, but she stuck it out.

One early refuge was the school nurse’s office. Martha would hang out there, helping where so could but also watching what the nurse did. Even at 18, when she discovered she was pregnant, she stuck to her plan to graduate from Abraham Lincoln High School on time, thanks, in part, to the same school nurse.

When her husband joined the Marine Corps, the two hoped for a better life. But, in a cruel twist of fate, during a two-week leave he was killed in a drive-by shooting by some local gang members who, police later said, most likely mistook him for a gang member because of his shaved head.

It might have defeated the strongest among us, and for some time Romero did feel defeated. Years of struggling to support herself and her sons, Jason and Brian, took their toll. The wages of a medical assistant kept a roof over their heads, but it was just one room, one bed and very little food. “We used to rotate who got the bed,” Romero says. “When it wasn’t your turn, you slept on the floor.” Finally, at age 27, she decided to return to school.

Initially, it was very difficult — not enough time to work and study, not enough money to make it easier. Dinner was often the leftovers from college functions; Romero volunteered to serve just to get the food. Public assistance helped, but it was meager; two hundred dollars in food stamps does not go far to feed two growing boys. Fortunately, and just in time, there was help; and for that Romero is grateful.

Through Bridge to Nursing (BTN), a joint effort of Rio Hondo College, TELACU (a community development corporation) and White Memorial, Romero was able to complete her associate degree in nursing. Scholarship money, funded by the hospital but administered through TELACU, made the difference. According to Velma Sanchez, who works with participants in the BTN program, the money targets students like Romero in the last semester of school that, though close to completion, might drop out due to academic or family pressures. Even three months after graduation, these new grads receive support to increase their likelihood of passing NCLEX. As soon as the $10,000 — given in stipends of $1,000 a month — started coming, Romero bought a computer. “I no longer had to stay late at school, and my safety was no longer at risk.”

Even so, nursing school took five long years. “Without the help I received, I could not have done it,” she says. By “help,” Romero doesn’t mean just the money and mentoring, but also the “hand-holding,” as she calls it. “If no one you know or anyone in your family has ever gone to college, if most people you know have dropped out of school, just registering is very intimidating. This help, which seems like a little thing, is really huge.”

TELACU provided all that. Sanchez says career planning and financial education are all part of the package. “Many of our scholars go from no income to a middle-class paycheck — the guidance is there to help them think about the future.”

Romero also remembers the support of the faculty at Rio Hondo. “They taught me confidence, how to communicate, how not to give up.” They also taught her how to give back. When one faculty member helped with a $500 car repair bill, she asked only that Romero extend the same help to someone else when she had the means. That notion of giving back has stuck with Romero and is a hallmark of her life today.

Carol Ramirez, RN, her unit manager at White Memorial, says, “Martha always wants to know how she can help. She wants to continue working with new nurses and with the community, even when she often has to make a choice. Not all new graduates are leaders or willing to speak up from the start, but Martha is.”

Martha Romero, BSN, nurse, graduationThe transition from scholarship recipient to employee was seamless. The Versant program played a critical role and contributed to Romero’s continuing success. Her recent acquisition of a bachelor’s degree through the University of Phoenix exemplifies her tenacity and the helpfulness of her employer. Fifteen nurses achieved their BSNs in September, all products of the innovative program offered onsite over a period of two years. “We went to class two nights a week right here at the hospital.” Through these classes, Romero met wonderful faculty who encouraged her leadership skills and her dream to become a teacher of nurses. But juggling school, work and family isn’t a walk in the park just yet.

Now Romero’s work extends beyond the hospital, although White Memorial does provide a frame of reference for her. She knows firsthand that it is not enough to say, “Get an education,” and she wants people to know that concrete help and guidance is also essential. To that end, Romero has met with community leaders, including now Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis, and with the Board of Registered Nursing. The Los Angeles City Council honored her for her contributions to the community, and, most recently, the Hospital Association of Southern California selected her as a Hospital Hero. Sponsored by the National Health Foundation, these awards seek to honor hospital staff who go beyond their jobs in serving the hospital and the broader community.

Beth Zachary, CEO of White Memorial and the one responsible for putting Romero in the running with 61 others, wrote of Romero: “Martha was nominated quite simply because she is a hero. She has overcome huge challenges…raising her children by herself and, during all of this, completing her education to become a nurse. What is truly amazing to me is that she has come through all of this with a strong, positive spirit and a commitment of giving back to girls in situations similar to hers.”

Besides being a role model, Romero sees providing culturally sensitive patient care and understanding as her special contribution to nursing. Language facility is important, but it is not enough. As she explains, if you have not lived this life, you don’t know what to ask and you don’t know how to ask it.  She offers as an example the time a staff member was amused but horrified to learn that a patient heated her home by turning on the gas oven and burners. It might seem odd to the staff member, but very familiar to someone like Romero who grew up in a home with no heating. Similarly, if you are unfamiliar with the newborn care of other cultures, you won’t be able to solicit information that might be a clue to a symptom. Neither will you be able to re-educate patients to a healthier habit. 

Are there more Martha Romeros in the community? Yes. According to Zachary, “I am confident that we will find these future nurses through scholars like Martha, who are going into local schools to share their story and convince students that they can achieve the same success. Our partnership with TELACU, an organization that has a grassroots understanding of our East L.A. community, will also help us identify and support students like Martha.”

In the meantime, Romero continues her personal commitment to give back. Along with everything else, she has learned how hard it is to raise scholarship money and how hard hospitals need to work to fund initiatives and retain staff. It is time consuming, but her children often accompany her to community events. “When I am there, they are right there along with me.” Her son will graduate from high school next year, and she hopes to be able to afford his college tuition — and her own as she pursues a master’s degree. Martha Romero is well on her way, but she is not finished yet. 

The Health Careers Bridge to Nursing Program gives select students in their second year of nursing school at partnering colleges scholarships of up to $10,000, book grants, stipends for living expenses and funding for NCLEX-RN exam fees and Kaplan prep courses. Students also receive  counseling and access to career-enhancing resources. For more information, go to, click on “Education Foundation” then “Programs” then “Nursing School Scholarships.”

Elizabeth Hanink RN, BSN, PHN is a freelance writer with extensive hospital and community-based nursing experience.

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