Turning Roadblocks into Stepping Stones

For Myriam Soto, MSEd, RN, director of staff management education at New York Methodist Hospital in Brooklyn, N.Y., overcoming obstacles is not only a career challenge but a way of life. Soto was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis in her late 20s and is often in excruciating pain. Yet she has dedicated her life to providing care, education and mentorship to others.

Being diagnosed with a chronic disease at such a relatively young age was literally a life-changing experience for Soto. “I had to give up running,” she says. “My dream was to run marathons, but I had to stop because it was too painful. My diagnosis challenged me to let go of who I was back then and embrace who I was becoming.”

The second oldest child from a family of five, Soto was born and raised in Brooklyn. Her parents, who had moved to the United States from Puerto Rico, created a loving, close-knit family. “I had a wonderful, loving childhood full of wisdom,” she remembers. “I was very involved in sports and the leadership club at school. My parents always signed us up for activities in the summers so that we wouldn’t get bored.”

Soto discovered her calling during elementary school when her father was hospitalized with gastric ulcers. “It was my first exposure to the health care system,” she explains. “I saw the nurses and the physicians working [and got a firsthand look at what these careers were like]. My father always asked me what I wanted to do, and I would say I wanted to teach and be a nurse. He encouraged me to do both and that’s how my career path formed.”

Others might have let the challenge of living with a painful illness stop them from pursuing their careers, or stop them from excelling, but not Soto. She has remained dedicated to the nursing profession for over 30 years.
“I graduated from Hunter College in 1975 and started my career as a public health nurse for a year and a half,” she says. “In 1977 I came to New York Methodist Hospital and I’ve been here for 30 years this June.”

Soto later earned her master’s degree from the College of Staten Island with a dual major in education and counseling. Striving to combine her love of teaching with her love of nursing, she moved into a position as a nurse educator in 1986 and was eventually promoted to her current position, in which she directs all staff education and training at the hospital.

Awarded for Excellence

Last year, when health care giant Johnson & Johnson called for nominations for its annual Nursing Excellence Recognition Award, Lucille Bock, director of human resources at New York Methodist Hospital, answered the call. So did Dan Suarez, RN, MA, president of the New York chapter of the National Association of Hispanic Nurses (NAHN). The theme for the 2006 award was to honor an outstanding nurse who has excelled in the profession despite personal adversity. Bock and Suarez nominated Soto for her commitment and dedication to the nursing profession and nursing education in spite of her struggle with rheumatoid arthritis.

Soto’s nomination came during a time of great distress and grief in her family. “The nomination went in while my dad was in the hospital, and I knew he was dying. I had forgotten about [the nomination] because I was so focused on my dad,” she recalls.

Just a month before her father was hospitalized, Soto herself had surgery on her left hand due to inflammation. “The last thing I was thinking about during that time was the award nomination,” she says. “I spent a lot of time with my dad and watched him surrender with grace and dignity. He was surrounded by grandchildren and great grandchildren. He told me to move forward with a positive approach to life.”

After her father died in January 2006, she took her annual trip to Puerto Rico–a Soto family tradition–to connect with loved ones at her family’s favorite beach house. She knew that her father would have wanted his family to continue the trips. Upon returning to New York, Soto received the news that she had been selected as the recipient of the 2006 Johnson & Johnson Nursing Excellence Recognition Award. She was the first Latina nurse to receive this prestigious award, and she says it was “overwhelming to have such an honor and to represent the Hispanic community in such a powerful way.”

After being honored by Johnson & Johnson, Soto was called upon to speak at the 2006 NAHN Annual Conference that summer. “I wasn’t scheduled on the program to speak,” she explains. “One of the speakers couldn’t attend the conference due to a last-minute emergency. It just happened that Dan Suarez volunteered me to do a motivational speech. It was spur of the moment. I was asked, ‘Would you be willing to do this tomorrow morning?’ It’s just not in me to say no. I was honored and privileged to be amongst my fellow Hispanic nurses and nursing students and share my story with them.

“It’s an honor to be selected as a role model for others,” she adds. “I get emails from people who have been inspired by my story and what I’ve accomplished. We need to reach out to our students and community in a collaborative way and encourage Hispanics to pursue nursing.”

Lifelong Mentoring

As America continues to become more ethnically and culturally diverse, Soto says it will be very important for more Hispanics to enter the nursing profession. She notes that many patients in our health care system only speak Spanish and they need the comfort of experiencing their own language and culture when receiving care. “I know from personal experience that if a nurse can speak Spanish, the patient feels safe and understood,” she attests. “There’s that giving of self and understanding.”

Soto tells aspiring minority nurses that even though the profession is challenging, they can accomplish their dreams. “What I tell prospective students at the high school level is to pursue the sciences,” she says. “The challenge of nursing is being disciplined and having good study habits.”

She also recognizes that many minority nursing students, as well as current minority RNs who want to advance their education and careers, face challenges outside of the classroom. “Many students are heads of their household and struggle with issues such as taking care of children and aging parents. They often give up at that point. Taking the science courses seems too difficult.” Support systems and mentoring, she says, can help them stay on track. “Having a mentor will show them how to shift their priorities. Maybe it means cutting back to just one class, but not giving up completely.”

Even after more than 30 years in nursing, Soto still has her own mentor to help guide her career. Her mentor is a senior fellow at the National Institutes of Health and Soto stays in constant contact with her. Her mentor has inspired her to pursue her doctorate of education; she is currently researching programs. She says she talks with her mentor about challenges that Latina nurses face.

In turn, Soto serves as a mentor to others as a member of the New York chapter of NAHN. The chapter’s mentorship program is one of its signature projects, she says, “because each of us understands the importance of mentoring nursing students.”

Shaping the Future

Mentoring is just one aspect of Soto’s commitment to building the next generation of nursing professionals. As part of Johnson & Johnson’s Campaign for Nursing’s Future, a national public awareness campaign designed to address the country’s “most profound shortage of nursing professionals in its history,” Soto appeared in a video highlighting her success as a nurse living with rheumatoid arthritis. The campaign shares the stories of diverse nursing role models like Soto to inspire others to choose nursing as a profession and to excel once they have entered the field.

Locally, Soto is involved in the Brooklyn Nursing Partnership program, which she describes as “an initiative where the hospitals and universities in Brooklyn work together to identify strategies to increase the nursing student population so that there’s not only a recruitment strategy but also a retention strategy for the nursing student. We work with one of the universities in particular and assist minority students at the prerequisite level who are trying to get into the nursing program. Often at that point they are struggling with personal issues and they let go of their dream.

“I am in a position where I can reach out to the deans and directors of these universities,” she continues. “We ask what we can do to improve the environment or work with the nursing students to make them successful. We need to develop strategies to deal with the nursing shortage. For me, I have to look at it through the lens of what I can contribute to my community here in Brooklyn.”

Soto was also instrumental in designing the Nursing Technician Program at New York Methodist Hospital–a program she began in the early 1990s and is still running today. This competitive program–the department gets a many as 1,200 resumes a year from applicants–offers prospective employees a chance to gain work experience and earn money while they are taking nursing coursework. The six-month program is divided into classroom and clinical instruction. When Soto first started the program in 1992, it had a 75% graduation rate; today the graduation rate is 98%.

“I believe the program has grown to be successful because of changes in our recruitment process,” Soto explains. “We started to profile which candidates would be successful and what those traits were. These candidates were then encouraged to enroll into nursing programs.”

A Passion for Life

It takes a passionate nurse to identify another passionate nurse, and Soto is extremely passionate about her work. “I love what I do and I believe in bringing out the best in others and myself.”

In her position as director of staff management education at New York Methodist, she oversees the entire nursing education department. “I’m responsible for the orientation of all new nurses that come into our facility,” she says. “I’m also responsible for the development of new programs, equipment selection and credentialing of staff in new skills. I’m involved with the staff at all levels, including our secretaries and assistants.”

Based on her personal experience of triumphing over a disabling illness, she advises aspiring nurses not to settle, and to move forward with heart. “I believe that life is brief and fragile and I need to do what makes me happy,” she declares. “My mission is to let go of what doesn’t serve me.”

For Soto, “not settling” means not allowing her illness to ever hold her back. “As a [nurse with rheumatoid arthritis], I have been on some difficult protocols; some have been successful and some have not. I’m fortunate to have loving people around me. I am not debilitated. I live with my illness and when I fail a protocol, I look at my options and get to work on it,” she says emphatically. Her unstoppable spirit and personal strength truly exemplify the qualities that the Johnson & Johnson Nursing Excellence Recognition Award stands for.