Good listening skills evolve into powerful advocacy work for UCLA Health nurse

Kemi Reeves is a driving force for equity, diversity and inclusion across UCLA Health.
Portrait of Nurse Practitioner Kemi Reeves
“My career has morphed over time, but there is always something exciting and engaging to participate in,” says Kemi Reeves, a gerontological nurse practitioner at UCLA Health. (Photo by Joshua Sudock/UCLA Health).

When Kemi Reeves, MSN, GNP-BC was a teenager growing up in a large New Orleans family, she was always the one her great-grandmother, Pearl, who suffered from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, called when she was short of breath.

Reeves lived next door, and she often would leave the house in the middle of the night to sit with Pearl. 

“I was able to identify when she was panicked or when she was actually short of breath,” Reeves recalls. “That earned me a reputation in my family for being calm and level-headed.”

Reeves would talk soothingly to Pearl while setting up her nebulizer, calming her down to sleep. Listening to her and repeatedly helping her through the process, Reeves realized she enjoyed the role of advocate.

It’s a role she has carried with her throughout her career as a gerontological nurse practitioner in the UCLA Alzheimer’s and Dementia Care Program.

“What I coined as good listening skills transformed into advocacy,” Reeves says. “Listening to what the needs and desires are and putting action to that. Knowing where to go with information can be immensely impactful, as it can help create real change instead of empathizing and moving on. Knowing there is a place we can go to develop and implement an initiative or to raise the flag to say, there is a need here.”

Unity and diversity

During the summer of 2020, Reeves, working remotely with patients and their family members, identified a need to provide culturally informed care. Many of her patients had never seen a Black health care provider, she says, and would ask her questions regarding medications and specific treatment plans that they might not have felt comfortable asking other providers.

Speaking with other care providers on campus, Reeves realized she was not alone. She turned to Chief Nursing Executive Karen Grimley, PhD, MBA, RN, FACHE, NEA-BC, who referred her to the Professional Development Council, which had a subcommittee also looking into options to improve equity, diversity and inclusion-related nursing practices. 

The idea for a council dedicated to EDI issues in nursing practice arose from this group of nurses, who made a formal pitch to the Nurse Executive Council for a new EDI-focused group within Professional Governance. 

Born out of the COVID-19 pandemic and the social justice movement that emerged in 2020, the Unity and Diversity Council is focused on issues of equity, diversity and inclusion “not just encompassing patient care, but trainees, staff, anyone who steps foot on campus,” Reeves explains.

Spreading kindness

Through that council, Reeves helped launch the inaugural Unity in Kindness Day in 2021. Participants joined in a note-writing activity and hung kindness remarks on a golden ring to express gratitude toward their colleagues and to highlight their intentions for the days ahead. 

Held in May to commemorate the anniversary of the murder of George Floyd, Unity in Kindness Day has become an annual event in which UCLA staff engage in wellness activities and learn about EDI principles. The event also coincides with Nurses Month.

“It’s a nice opportunity to be present as a community,” Reeves notes. “As a community of caretakers, we strive to extend our helping hands to others. However, it is equally important to take care of ourselves.”

An unexpected nurse

Reeves attended elementary school and high school at Ursuline Academy, the oldest all-girls schools in the nation, and the all-girls St. Mary’s College in Notre Dame, Indiana. She entered college as a biology major, fully expecting to be pre-med but switched to nursing with the intent of becoming a nurse practitioner. 

After graduating with a Bachelor of Science in Nursing and a minor in biology in 2004, she worked as a travel nurse in specialties that included HIV/AIDS, infectious diseases, orthopedic surgery and telemetry.

She enjoyed the variety of those roles, but her memories of caring for her great-grandmother had stayed with her. Recognizing her affinity for working with older adults, she returned to school and, in 2009, Reeves graduated from UCLA School of Nursing with a Master of Science in Nursing, specializing as a Primary Care Gerontological Nurse Practitioner.

She has worked within the UCLA Division of Geriatrics as a nurse practitioner since 2010.

“My career has morphed over time, but there is always something exciting and engaging to participate in,” she says.

Modeling nursing excellence

Another unexpected twist to her career occurred in 2023 when Reeves was one of 30 nurses – 10 from UCLA Health – to be honored by the Simms/Mann Family Foundation’s Off the Chart program, which recognizes nurses for outstanding care with a $10,000 gift. 

By the program’s design, recipients embody “a bias toward action, capacity for self-direction, originality and creative instincts, courageous and bold thinking, and the potential to achieve even more.”

“It makes me proud to be a nurse,” Reeves says about the honor. “It highlights the professionalism of nursing, and I’m excited to be a model of what a nurse is.”

Always innovating

Last summer, the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation announced the GUIDE Model, an alternative payment model for patients receiving dementia care. Reeves is the Lead Dementia Care Specialist for the UCLA Alzheimer’s and Dementia Care Program. With the pilot program set to launch in July, Reeves and her department have begun work on UCLA Health’s application to become a GUIDE participant.

In addition, Reeves continues her work on the Unity in Diversity Council, which is launching an initiative around building assessments for health literacy into the workflow to ensure all patients have access to education, information and resources.

Ever the student, Reeves is in her final year in the Doctor of Nurse Practitioner/Master of Business Administration program at Johns Hopkins University. There, she hopes to gain a greater idea of how to impact highly specialized care. 

“I’ve worked in these different areas – bedside nursing, skilled nursing, assisted living, and primary care. I have observed that while each of these institutions has its own way of functioning, they often struggle to communicate and deliver well-coordinated care with one another. Given the population trends we are currently facing, it is crucial that these institutions work together more effectively. This is what I am passionate about."

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