Nurse, Advocate, Activist

“I’ve always been a person who likes to help others,” declares Haydee Canovas, RN, CPN, of Louisville, Kentucky. “In my work as a nurse practitioner, I get to deal with people one on one, helping them to change their lives for the better. I love it.”

The daughter of Cuban immigrants, as a child Canovas was inspired by watching her mother help other local families who had recently arrived from Cuba to build a new life in America. “She did a lot of volunteering, and still does,” Canovas says. “Hispanic females are the caregivers of the family.”

But for this exceptional Hispanic nurse, the caregiver role is only part of the story. “I take it one step further,” she explains. “I do nursing, and I volunteer, and I also influence the community’s perception of Hispanic women politically. The University of Louisville nursing school taught me to be an advocate for the patient. But I have become an advocate for the family and the community as well.”

Canovas’ passion and commitment have not gone unnoticed in the profession. In 2002 she was named Hispanic Nurse of the Year by the National Association of Hispanic Nurses (NAHN).

Viola Benavente, RN, MSN, CNS, assistant professor of acute nursing care at the University of Texas in San Antonio, is an officer of NAHN. “Haydee Canovas richly deserves the Nurse of the Year honor,” Benavente says. “What she does is just outstanding.”

What exactly does Canovas do? For starters, she is an outspoken advocate for the rights of undocumented Hispanic immigrants in her state. “Here in Kentucky, [immigration inspectors] kick down doors, go into homes and drag people, handcuffed, into the street,” Canovas asserts. “The children are afraid to go to school, afraid their parents won’t be there when they come home. Often, the children are U.S. citizens born here, but if the parents are deported, the children are sent with them.

“This is too much stress for a child to cope with,” the nurse contends. “I recently was a speaker at a protest rally in front of the Louisville federal building. I spoke for the children. I’ve worked in acute care at a psychiatric hospital. I don’t want these children to end up there.”

Helping Those Whose Need Is Greatest

Born in Maryland, Canovas graduated from college with an associate’s degree in fashion design, then married and had two daughters. “My father says I should have been a nurse from the beginning,” she recalls. “But I wasn’t ready for nursing at that time.”

Later, going through divorce, Canovas realized she wanted a more professional career. At age 32 she enrolled in the University of Louisville BSN program, intending even then to eventually become a family nurse practitioner. Balancing nursing school with the demands of being a single mom wasn’t always easy. “I’ve been taking my children to school with me since they were little,” she smiles. “Sometimes they sat in lectures with me and sometimes they played in the computer lab across the hall.”

Even as a BSN student, Canovas’ leadership abilities were clearly evident. She served two terms as president of her school’s Association of Student Nurses and helped to found the NAHN Kentucky chapter. Meanwhile, she did clinical practice at the Family Health Center of Clark County, Indiana, right across the Ohio River. One day, the clinic director asked her to find out about a program that was supplying the popular heart medicine Cardizem free to indigent patients.

“I researched it myself, called the manufacturer, then started adding other pharmaceuticals from other manufacturers,” Canovas recounts. “Pretty soon I had a big catalog of drugs we could get for free. I saved the clinic $25,000 the first year, then $57,000 the second year–and this was working just two to six hours a week as a student.

“This clinic’s patients,” she adds, “are the most needy, the poorest of the poor–drug addictions, homeless, uneducated, no teeth.  They’ve been in jail and they tell you so. Working with them, I learned how to talk to people and just be straightforward. You can’t be judgmental [about their lifestyle choices], but you can call them on it. You can say, ‘You can’t live healthy by taking drugs or drinking alcohol this way.’ They need to have someone tell them this.”

After earning her BSN degree, Canovas went to work in the acute psychiatric ward at Central State Hospital, at the urging of her friend and mentor Nancy Kern. “I worked with patients who were completely wigged out—poop slingers, hitters, biters.” While some nurses wouldn’t think of this as a dream job, it appealed to Canovas’ compassionate nature. “That was my best time,” she insists. “I loved the acute psychiatric unit. Like the Family Health Center, it’s another place that I think of as mine.”

“I would go to work on Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day,” Canovas remembers. “Those are sad days in the psychiatric ward. I would buy a cake and we would eat it together, along with whatever food the cafeteria provided. Because of that experience, I am really happy and grateful for the family that I have.”

Culturally Competent Compassion

In 1999, while working toward her master’s degree, Canovas’ life took another important turn. She accepted the position of founding director of Kentucky’s first Health Education and Training Center.

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“Our HETC is Hispanic-focused,” she explains. “It provides health information, career education information, continuing education, cultural competency training and placement in underserved areas. I still give lectures for the HETC and they provide books for my volunteer work helping foreign-educated nurses learn English.”

Today, having earned her MSN from the University of Louisville, Canovas works in an internal medicine practice with Dr. Juan Polo, a physician from Cuba. “He put my name on the door last Friday,” she says with pride. “Being Hispanic and female, I know that a lot of women patients are going to want me to do their gynecological exam, so I am studying women’s health.”

Admittedly “pretty busy”–she sat for two board examinations this spring–Canovas still finds time to share knowledge with those who need it. Working in tandem with her friend Jo-Ann Negron, RN, she gives free cultural competency training to nurses, teachers and other professionals who work with the Hispanic community.

“In the U.S., all the different Hispanic cultures have been lumped together,” Canovas notes. “We give lectures on Mexican American, Cuban American, Puerto Rican and Guatemalan/Honduran cultures. We talk about traditional cultural behaviors like limited eye contact, personalismo [interpersonal warmth], marianismo [idealized feminine role], machismo [overbearing masculine role], the passiveness of Hispanic women. For example, a nurse may offer pain medication, but the Hispana may feel she doesn’t deserve it. She may say no, but it’s an apologetic no.”

Canovas and Negron also coauthor a biweekly column, Preguntale a la Enfermera [“Ask the Nurse”] in the regional Spanish-language newspaper. “We write about different health topics, from prostate trouble to dry skin,” Canovas says.

And that’s still not all. “Every year, I give the keynote speech at a graduation ceremony for promotores [lay community members trained to provide health information and advocacy],” Canovas continues. “Husbands, parents and children attend the ceremony. I tell them, ‘It is not an option for all these little children that I see here not to go to the university. If you don’t have the money, find the money. If you don’t know how, find out how.’”

Foreign-educated immigrant nurses who wish to practice their profession in the United States must meet rigorous requirements, including passing the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL).  Proprietary TOEFL preparation classes are expensive, so “I’ve been helping five nurses study around my kitchen table,” says Canovas. “A Peruvian nurse I helped, who was a baccalaureate nurse in her country, just passed the test!”

Putting Others First

With so much of Haydee Canovas’ life channeled into helping others, it might seem as though there’s not much left for herself. But this award-winning nurse doesn’t see it that way. “In giving, you receive,” she muses.  “That’s where my wealth is. I don’t have furniture in my living and dining rooms, because I haven’t had time to buy any. But it’s not a priority.  There will be time for that later.”

Nevertheless, Canovas urges young people to “seek careers that are profitable and that also fill you, heart and soul. When a child mentions a career interest, tell them: ‘Let’s find out more about it.’ Some things can be hobbies and some things can be professions. You don’t want to study for six years of your life and have it not be profitable.”

As her own success story demonstrates, Canovas believes education is key. “In Kentucky, we have only one Hispanic nurse PhD and a handful of MSNs,” she says. “We need more Hispanic nurses in positions of leadership. We need to be role models for our community.  We need people who will inspire young nurses to say, ‘I want to be like that person,’ just as I looked up to my mentor, Nancy. How can we be role models if there aren’t enough of us up in the higher echelons?” 

As always, her advice to other nurses is straightforward and to the point: “If you are an LPN, get your RN. If you are an RN, get your BSN.  If you have your BSN, get your MSN, and if you have that, get your PhD!”

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