For 15 years, Latanya Weston was in operating rooms in her home state of Georgia, amputating the limbs of patients who suffered from kidney disease. The feeling of the scalpel pushing down on flesh and the sound of the bone cracking haunts her.
A Georgia native, Weston knew that the mortality rate of kidney disease is 30 to 40 percent higher in her state than the national average. But, while the numbers show that the percentage of black and white adults treated for kidney disease are roughly the same, Weston knows a different reality.
The series highlights healthcare leaders who are prominent figures in their organizations and are making transformational impacts in nursing.
Meet Latanya Weston, a nurse practitioner at Somatus, the nation’s leading and largest value-based kidney care company.
Talk about your career path and how you ascended to that role.
I was constantly stricken with various illnesses when I was growing up. As a high school student, I spent most of my senior year being operated on or hospitalized. Although I could maintain my overall academic achievements through these health issues, I was told I would need to repeat my first semester as I had been in the hospital too much. It was unfair to the other students. This news was incredibly disheartening. I had already mapped out a career plan and did not want to delay graduating. I made a tough decision and begged my parents to let me sit for the “General Education Development” exam. I excelled and went on to sit for the SATs. I became a college student while my friends were still in high school.
Once graduating from the surgical technology program, my career path began at Mitchell County Hospital, where I was a surgical technologist. Together our surgical team operated on many patients suffering from advanced kidney disease and renal failure. In many cases, these patients had developed peripheral arterial disease. They were on the table to have a limb amputated or were crashing into dialysis and needed to get a venous catheter implanted. Although I loved being a surgical technologist, my heart’s desire was always to become a nurse. So, in 2006, while working as a surgical technologist, I returned to school and became an operating room nurse. This allowed me to work at a bigger hospital in my hometown to gain more experience. However, the unsettling patient trends I had noticed in the county hospital were now amplified—more amputations and dialysis catheters, and again always in patients of color. So, in 2007, I again shifted my career and decided to leave my hometown for a hospital away from home.
After more than a decade along this career path and seeing patients in severe distress day after day, I grew to feel I needed to make a change. Then, one day while I was on call for the operating room, I fell down a flight of stairs and hurt my foot. The pain was constant, and I could no longer stand on my feet in the operating room as long as I had. I had to make a change, and a part of me felt like this was a sign that I should go back to school to educate and prevent the disease processes that were landing so many patients on the operating room table. For quite a while, I had been thinking about what impact I could make if I met patients earlier in their healthcare journey before surgery was the only option. I then decided that I would become a nurse practitioner.
What inspired you to become a nurse?
I knew I wanted to be a nurse from a very young age. My aunt was a nurse who would conduct home health visits at her patients’ houses, and from the time I was in second grade, I would beg to go with her. I enjoyed visiting patients and watching my aunt care for them. I always felt I had this same gift of caring as she did. Nursing takes a special heart and mind; everyone does not possess this attribute.
Furthermore, I grew up in a community with significant health challenges, yet people didn’t prioritize their health. Most people don’t have primary care physicians, schedule annual check-ups, or think about preventive care. Members of my community were often struggling with obesity, diabetes, and kidney disease, and there were several dialysis centers in my neighborhood. Kidney disease impacted my family as well. My sister passed away at 33 because she could not get a kidney transplant.
I’ve lived my whole life in Georgia, where the mortality rate from chronic kidney disease is over 40% more than the national average.
As a nurse practitioner, I finally feel I am where I was meant to be. Now I reach patients early on in their healthcare journey when their primary care physician first diagnoses them with kidney disease. Through education and support, I can change the direction of a person’s life and stop them from ending up on someone’s operating room table.
What are the most important attributes of today’s nursing leaders?
Given the changes in the healthcare industry, building trusting relationships between clinicians and consumers can often be taxing. Nursing leaders must be of great character and moral values. This includes the ability to show respect to another and communicate appropriately. One of the major complaints in the patient population is that providers do not listen. As nursing leaders, we can’t overstate the importance of being a good listener and communicating relevant information to providers. This will strengthen the patient-provider relationship and encourage more communication, improving overall patient outcomes. Nurse leaders must maintain integrity, respect, grace, and professionalism and always take the time to listen and communicate, making their relationships the building blocks to success.
What does it mean to you to be a nursing leader, and how are you making a difference?
The leader I am today is the ultimate assignment. I wanted to uncover the world of medicine and was given the great opportunity to travel as a Locum Tenens Nurse Practitioner from 2016 to 2018. That experience blessed my entire being and made me realize that my mission is not only to save lives but to change them. I worked in the Pacific Northwest to combat mental illness and addiction and changed many lives. In every home or exam room I enter, the person on the other side of the door becomes my family. No matter the situation, I take their hands, and together we weather the storm one diagnosis at a time. I ensure they do not feel alone in the battle, which makes a difference in patient outcomes.
What is the most significant challenge facing nursing today?
The healthcare industry has come a long way in recognizing the impact of social determinants of health on patient health, but this is still the most significant challenge facing us today. As nurses, we see first-hand, time and again, that providing “equal” care to patients is not enough. Care plans must consider the whole person, where they live, their resources, and everything else that affects them when they leave their doctor’s office.
This is particularly true about kidney disease, which disproportionately affects Black people. Black people make up around 13% of the U.S. population but account for around a third of those with kidney failure.
In many cases, patients don’t realize they have kidney disease until the day their doctor gives them the diagnosis. Without understanding the disease process and how each element of the care plan works together to slow and control their chronic kidney disease progression, it’s very difficult for a patient to commit to making significant lifestyle changes.
We also know that socioeconomic issues are tied to kidney disease. Even if a patient has health insurance, they may still have financial concerns, making it difficult to afford medications and treatments. They may be worried about paying their rent or utility bills, which makes it difficult to focus on their physical health. In addition, they may not have a wheelchair or a ramp to get in and out of their house or transportation to their next doctor’s visit.
Shopping for kidney-friendly foods may also be a challenge, both in terms of affordability and availability. Patients may also need help adopting new meal preparation methods with no one to guide them, and they find it much easier to fall back on frozen meals.
There are countless other barriers to care that we see in our patients every day, and as nurses, we are often the best equipped to inform the rest of the care team about what our patients need.
As a nursing leader, how are you working to overcome this challenge?
I’m now a nurse practitioner at Somatus, the country’s first value-based kidney care company. Our goal is to give whole-person, 360-degree support to kidney disease patients, providing preventive care and breaking down the barriers and challenges patients face every day. For example, when a patient is first diagnosed with kidney disease, we go to the patient’s home to do a complete evaluation, look through their cupboards, figure out where they can source nutritious food, demonstrate how to prepare meals, and even help them with administrative tasks and paperwork.
Together with my fellow Somatus care team colleagues, we work with a nephrologist and other health care providers to give patients the whole-person support they need to follow their care plan and make lifestyle changes.
Every day I see the impact of individualized, patient-centered care. Sometimes there are significant actions like teaching a patient to monitor their blood pressure every day, but other times it’s something small, like praying with one of my patients, that makes a huge difference. This is what I love.
What nursing leader inspires you the most and why?
Mary Eliza Mahoney is the first African American licensed nurse in the U.S., and when I think of her perseverance and tenacity, I also see myself. She worked tirelessly as a private home nurse, doing what she loved while advocating to be treated as a professional and equal. Her example shows that we can not only prolong and save lives but can also change them.
What inspirational message would you like to share with the next generation of nurses?
When you become a nurse, whenever you walk through the door, someone on the other side waits for you to enter the room and be their guiding light. So I like to take a moment to ask myself, “I wonder who my next blessing is in that room?” every time I meet a new patient. This road is not for the weak, but the journey is incredibly rewarding as you touch and change lives day after day. I always tell people, “Nursing is not a money thing… it is a heart thing.”