When Mariela Monzon, MSN, RN, first arrived in this country from Peru, neighbors told her the local hospital was Jewish. Because of the name - St. Mary's Hospital - Monzon knew better, but the mistake illustrates one problem Passaic, NJ, facility faced.
As the neighborhood changed (from Catholic to Jewish to an immigrant mix from all over the world) the education and outreach needed to change as well.
Monzon, a nurse in Peru who had also been trained in education and psychology, began volunteering in community health about 1 year after the hospital opened the department in the mid-1990s.
First, Monzon just helped by distributing flyers. As her English improved, Monzon was able to help translate brochures into her native Spanish. She began working for the hospital part time and is now working full time in the community health department as the community nurse educator (she passed her U.S. boards in 1999).
As a highly educated nurse, Monzon could get a job almost anywhere. But she said she chooses to stay in Passaic because of a loyalty to the hospital and her community. An economically depressed city, many of Passaic's citizens are not highly educated.
Still, hospital leaders said they make a concerted effort to hire from the community. Many locally hired employees work as nurse aides, in housekeeping or in janitorial positions.
"What better way to serve the community than with folks from the community," said senior human resources generalist Lori Adeoba. "If you can hire someone and help to foster them being viable members of society, that's always a plus."
Monzon said she believes living in the community where she works helps her do her job better. She has developed and maintained relationships with many people working in the city as well as county departments where she often refers local residents.
Sometimes Monzon gets stopped on the street or in the supermarket. People remember her from a prenatal class she taught, a health fair she worked, or a church she visited to do blood pressure screenings. Locals have taken to calling her the "Nurse of Passaic."
One of the difficulties Monzon faces is reaching out to the wide variety of immigrant groups in the community. Nearly half of the city's population is foreign-born (compared to just 17.5 percent for all of New Jersey residents).
A diverse immigrant population lives in Passaic, from Hindus and Middle Easterners to Polish and blacks. But the majority of residents - nearly two-thirds - are Hispanic or of Latino origin.
Like Monzon, some are Spanish-speaking. She said she uses their shared language to build trust and encourage people to utilize the hospital's resources. She said many people have misconceptions and resist going to a hospital because they fear it could affect their application to immigrate.
Last year, a news report claimed healthcare staffs at any hospital could call immigration to report illegal immigrants - a report Monzon says "set us back years" in terms of community trust.
"That's caused a lot of problems here because people won't go to the hospital," Monzon said. "We found they really need more information about how they can get into the system, how they can ask for help if they need it."
St. Mary's created a program called Together in Health to educate the community about Medicare and Medicaid and to allay any fears residents may have about the healthcare system. When people immigrate, Monzon said, healthcare gets pushed lower on their list of priorities.
"The style of life is different for them," she continued. "Everything becomes a big barrier. Most of them forget about their health because of lack of information or not enough money to pay a private doctor."
Adeoba and the rest of the human resources team at St. Mary's try to hire locally whenever possible. She estimates that 70 percent of the hospital aides and technicians are people who live locally.
High school students have the option to intern at the 200-bed facility, Adeoba said. Like many hospitals, St. Mary's also partners with local nursing schools.
Nursing students at Passaic Community College can do an externship rotation at the hospital. If graduates decide to go on for a bachelor's at the College of St. Elizabeth IN Morristown, St. Mary's will pay for one semester of education.
Nursing school grads can also work at St. Mary's before passing their boards as part of a personalized internship program before they become full-fledged nurses.
"I think students are looking for what we have to offer: personalized attention, training and development that you might not get from other organizations," Adeoba said. "You're not going to get lost by the wayside."
All these efforts are meant to encourage members of the community to consider working at St. Mary's. Adelaida Garces, RN, said she became interested in working at the facility through the externship program. She worked as a nurse's aide at the hospital one summer during nursing school. The facility was just 10 minutes from home and the staff welcomed her aboard.
"That helped me a lot to stay," she said. "I felt very welcome in the hospital. "People were like family. I didn't even think twice."
After graduating in 2003, Garces now works in critical care. She's said to be an asset to the department because of her community roots and her language skills - she's the only nurse on the unit who can speak Spanish.
"For the patients who don't speak English, it's good that I'm there," Garces said.
Garces received an award last summer from the Alliance for Ecuadorians. In presenting the award, alliance leaders noted her contributions to the community.
Times Have Changed
With all of St. Mary's outreach, the community is becoming more aware of the hospital, its mission and the people who care for the community. It's a far cry from a decade ago when residents didn't know the facility's religious affiliation.
"People can talk about St. Mary's with more confidence," Monzon said. "Now the hospital has more people who are bilingual and can truly speak their language."
Emily Wengert is a freelance writer in New York City.