Nurses committed to building healthier communities

Nurse treating a homeless patient
Nurse Marcia Santini, right, provides care to a patient in downtown L.A. as part of her work with the Homeless Healthcare Collaborative. (Photo by Chris Flynn/UCLA Health)

UCLA Health nurses are committed to reaching beyond the walls of the hospital to provide world-class health care to those who need it most. In 2022, nursing-led programs brought food, medical care and mental health services to underserved populations throughout Los Angeles County — programs that required nurses to create, innovate and seek out new ways to meet patients where they live. 

Homeless Healthcare Collaborative

In January 2022, UCLA Health launched the Homeless Healthcare Collaborative, bringing medical and psychiatric care to unhoused populations with a fleet of medically equipped vans staffed by nurses, physicians and social workers. The mobile units roll out seven days a week, targeting geographic areas with the highest need, including West Los Angeles, South Los Angeles, downtown Los Angeles, neighborhoods near the L.A. Convention Center and North Hollywood/San Fernando Valley. The team includes nurses Kendal Wilkie, BSN, RN; Marcia Santini, RN; Nancy Vega, RN; and Shiou Udagawa, BSN, RN.  

“Nurses are essential to our program and they consistently are the face of the program in the community,” says Brian Zunner-Keating, MS, RN, director of the UCLA Health Homeless Healthcare Collaborative. “They maintain relationships with our community partners, they get to know the patients and they keep track of appointments and any extra care patients might need.”

NAMI Wellness Weekend group photo
A group poses at the NAMI Westside Los Angeles Wellness Weekend event in Santa Monica. (Photo by Les Dishman Photography)

Wilkie has found working with the collaborative a moving experience. “We see an underserved population that desperately needs care and attention and who have been overlooked,” she says. “So many of these people have had bad experiences in the past with the health care system, and they are frightened and distrustful. Whatever we can do to make that a better, more positive experience for them is so important. We don’t judge anyone. We come to where they live to care for them no matter what their need is.” 

In 2022, the collaborative:

  • Helped more than 5,000 people, including 1,500 through direct-care encounters and 3,000 through outreach (dispensing snacks, water and hygiene kits);
  • Dispensed more than 1,500 medications to patients, many of whom are uninsured or don’t have access to a pharmacy;
  • Averaged 23 encounters per van each day;
  • Forged more than 20 partnerships with food banks, homeless shelters and other outreach providers;
  • Organized Giving Tuesday to engage staff from Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center and UCLA Santa Monica Medical Center to package 2,000 hygiene kits and 500 blankets; and
  • Was recognized with a Team Daisy Award.

Zunner-Keating says he’s proud of how the team has solidified over the past year. “All of them are experienced nurses, but this is a new setting, and they’ve quickly learned to adapt, work on their feet and to be flexible in the community. They’ve been a central part of improving workflows and the way we are able to care for patients.”

Janet Rimicci, MSN, RN, senior director at UCLA Santa Monica Medical Center, agrees. “The nurses are the ones who know our processes the best and they are the experts at how we’re delivering care,” she says.

Driving food collection

Helping community members who are struggling with homelessness and food insecurity is critical to her role as a nurse, says Kannitha Lor, BSN, RN, CCRN. “As nurses, we value the people in our community, not just the patients in front of us,” she says.  

Lor, a clinical nurse II in the coronary care unit, headed the annual food drive sponsored by nurses at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, UCLA Santa Monica Medical Center and Resnick Neuropsychiatric Hospital at UCLA, in partnership with the Westside Food Bank. 

The drive raised $836 in monetary donations and collected 1,604 pounds of food to be distributed throughout the food bank’s service area of Venice, Santa Monica, Culver City, West L.A. and several college campuses.

Lor, co-chair of the Professional Development Council, notes that “the needs in these communities have increased as people struggle with rising housing and food costs. Often, they must choose between paying bills and putting food on the table.”    

“These stressors can lead to physical and mental illness. The food drive is one way to help our neighbors who are trying to tackle these issues,” she says.

Homeless Healthcare Collaborative team with van
The Homeless Healthcare Collaborative team pictured with one of the mobile health vans that they use to provide care across L.A. County. (Photo by Chris Flynn/UCLA Health)

Focus on mental health

In May 2022, the National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI) Westside Los Angeles held its second annual Wellness Weekend at the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica. The two-day fundraising event, recognizing Mental Health Awareness Month in May, featured music, yoga, meditation and wellness workshops. Erick Cheung, MD, chief medical officer at the Resnick Neuropsychiatric Hospital at UCLA (RNPH), and Patrick Loney, BSN, MBA, RN, chief nursing officer at RNPH, along with hospital staff, answered questions and led interactive games and activities.

“It was a good introduction to what NAMI does,” says Sunnie Dishman, MSN, RN-BC, an assistant nurse manager at RNPH. Dishman organized UCLA Health’s participation in Wellness Weekend, with assistance from the RNPH Structural Empowerment Council. She has been leading fundraising efforts for NAMI Westside Los Angeles since 2008, when she and her husband organized the first fundraising walk.

In 2022, Dishman’s team raised $2,090 by creating videos on how they cope with stress. The videos were posted on the NAMI Westside Los Angeles website.  Fundraising was bolstered by an additional $3,000 from UCLA Health through its sponsorship of the event.

Two years ago, NAMI Westside Los Angeles recognized Dishman with the Frontline Service Award for her contributions to the organization. “They were grateful that in spite of the COVID-19 pandemic our support didn’t stop,” she says. And she has praise for her UCLA Health nursing colleagues who support her efforts with NAMI. “I never run out of volunteers.” 

Take the Next Step

See the complete 2023 Annual Nursing Report.

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