“Nursing is more than just about blood and guts,” said Dr. Gina Miranda-Diaz, director of the West New York Health Department, who was recently one of 10 nurses nationally honored for her innovative approach to public health.
Miranda-Diaz was one of only 10 nurses from around the country to be named a “Culture of Health Breakthrough Leader in Nursing” by the Future of Nursing: Campaign for Action, a joint initiative of AARP, the AARP Foundation and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF).
As health officer and director of the Health Department of West New York, NJ, Miranda-Diaz is responsible for the public health of the town and its 57,000 residents. She is also adjunct faculty at both Rutgers University School of Nursing and Lehman College Nursing Department.
Her service to the people of New Jersey is impressive and multifaceted. As a nurse and an active volunteer with disaster health services at the American Red Cross, Miranda-Diaz was deployed to a shelter during Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, and aided passengers of US Airways Flight 1549 — the “Miracle on the Hudson.”
She called her recent honor “amazing” and said that there was a long vetting process to get down to the 10 nurses nationwide that were actually picked.
“I represent New Jersey,” she said.
The honor goes to health officials who bring innovative approaches to their roles.
“Public health is my passion.” — Gina Miranda-Diaz
Miranda-Diaz was appointed West New York health officer in April 2013.
Miranda-Diaz graduated from the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey with a doctorate in Nursing Practice, earned a dual master’s degree in Nursing and Public Health at Hunter College, and a Bachelor of Science in Nursing degree from Adelphi University. She worked as a visiting nurse while finishing up her doctorate.
Doing things for the community
Miranda-Diaz grew up in the Bronx where she went to school and attended college, then moved “kicking and screaming” to New Jersey in 2003.
“I grew up in the Bronx,” she said. “My parents came from Puerto Rico. I attended Catholic schools in the Bronx. When I came to New Jersey, I moved to North Bergen.”
She briefly went back into academia, but always kept her eye on the wider world where she knew she wanted to work.
“I owned my own business for a while and was in academia,” she said. “Public health is my passion. I worked as a visiting nurse in New York.”
To become a health official, she had to be licensed. While she had a doctorate, there were no real courses she could take to pass the licensing test. As it turned out, her practical knowledge allowed her to take the test and pass.
She has been deeply involved in holding health fairs and dealing with victims of domestic violence. Some other concerns involve traumatic brain injuries in children, hypertension and other issues.
“We do a lot of things in the community,” she said.
She collaborates with the North Hudson Action Corporation – a group that helps low-income people in West New York, Union City, Hoboken, Jersey City, North Bergen and elsewhere.
This includes providing vaccination shots for free. She said there are significant problems with tuberculosis and various viruses.
Helping with health insurance
In coming to West New York as the nurse and health official, she had to change the public’s perception of the role she played in the community.
“The community didn’t look to the health official as a resource for health, but as a place to take complaints,” she said. “They would come to us to complain about not having heat or hot water. People didn’t understand that we are involved in public health. That covers a lot of ground.”
She partners with a number of agencies and helps with diverse issues, even such things as helping people with registering for healthcare under the federal Affordable Healthcare Act.
Being bilingual helped her in reaching the community in West New York, she said. “We never had a bilingual health officer before,” she said.
Her position as a nurse and health official has also allowed her to mentor others. Students from Rutgers University come to West New York to work with her as part of their studies on medical safety.
She also involves members of the North Hudson Regional Fire Department to talk to kids about safety issues.
She worked as a visiting nurse during the early stages of the HIV/AIDS crisis.
“Many people were inflicted,” she said. “Kids were being raised by grandparents. The disease split up families. One member was sick, while another took care of the kids.”
“When you’re out there as a public health professional, you want to take care of the whole family,” she said.
So often, she would meet people in the supermarket or elsewhere and ask about other family members.
“Hospitals want people out sooner, and so many people do not get the care they need,” she said. “When I owned my own business, I used to give mammograms for free. I didn’t think a person should have to die because they couldn’t afford them. Women used to bring their daughters. Husbands pushed their wives to get them.”
Too few Hispanic nurses
Miranda-Diaz is also a rarity as far as being a Latina nurse.
“There are very few Latina nurses,” she said. “I wanted to have an impact. I was the first person in my family to go to college. I am the first nurse in my family.
She said part of the problem is cultural. Boyfriends often discourage their Latina girlfriends. But also, some girls do not understand what nursing is.
“I visit middle and high schools to talk about nursing and tell them it’s not just blood and guts,” she said. “There are different kinds of nursing. But kids have to start early. But junior and senior year in high school it may be doing too late.”
But the community has to also support a girl’s ambition to become a nurse.
“When you have community support, they are going to be much more successful,” she said. “My father was not a brain surgeon. He worked for Coca Cola for 35 years. My mother worked for a doctor. I worked right out of high school and graduated a school of nursing when I was 21. I think most proud of the fact I’m a nurse despite all the barriers I’ve had to overcome. I get to use my degree and knowledge to help a lot of people.”
Al Sullivan may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.