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Stellar UTHealth Houston Nurses celebrated at 2023 'Salute to Nurses' Luncheon

Lauren Cantu, RN, points to her name at the Houston Chronicle 'Salute to Nurses' event, where she and other UTHealth Houston nurses were honored. (Photo by Logan Ball/UT Physicians)
Lauren Cantu, RN, points to her name at the Houston Chronicle 'Salute to Nurses' event, where she and other UTHealth Houston nurses were honored. (Photo by Logan Ball/UT Physicians)
Jessica Carrillo (left) and Constanza Veronica-Moreno (right), are two Pacesetter BSN students from Cizik School of Nursing at UTHealth Houston who received a scholarship award. (Photo by UTHealth Houston)
Jessica Carrillo (left) and Constanza Veronica-Moreno (right), are two Pacesetter BSN students from Cizik School of Nursing at UTHealth Houston who received a scholarship award. (Photo by UTHealth Houston)

From the classroom to the clinic, 12 nurses with UTHealth Houston were recognized Tuesday, May 2, at the Houston Chronicle’s annual “Salute to Nurses” luncheon. The event, held as part of observances for National Nurses Week, is dedicated to honoring the Top 200 nurses who have done exemplary work in the Houston area.

This year’s recipients included three faculty members, Juane K. Alexander, MSN, RN; Higinio Fernández-Sánchez, BScN, MN, RN; and Meagan Whisenant, PhD, APRN; and two students, Jessica Carrillo and Constanza Veronica-Moreno, from Cizik School of Nursing at UTHealth Houston; as well as seven nurses with McGovern Medical School at UTHealth Houston’s clinical practice, UT Physicians.

Juane K. Alexander, MSN, RN

Alexander is a student-favorite instructor in Cizik School of Nursing’s Department of Undergraduate Studies. Her Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) students put her name forward for “Salute to Nurses,” and previous colleagues nominated her several times to receive the John P. McGovern Outstanding Teacher of the Year award.

“I think it’s probably because I am one of them,” said Alexander, who has been a student as well as a faculty member at Cizik School of Nursing. She earned a BSN and a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) on the education track from the school and hopes to defend her PhD dissertation this year. Alexander’s doctoral research focuses on pediatric cancer experiences on Saint Lucia, the Caribbean island where she was born.

Pacesetter program students in both the accelerated BSN and the RN to BSN programs meet with Alexander, who teaches community health nursing clinical and didactic courses, as well as adult and reproductive health care clinicals and high acuity simulations.

Alexander came to Houston for her education after serving two years in the U.S. Army as an electrician. Recently, she drew on her personal experience as part of a team led by Barbara Hekel, PhD, MPH, RN, assistant professor in the department, that developed a case study to be included in the American Association of Colleges of Nursing Essentials Toolkit. The scenario follows a disabled veteran and his family and is used to teach nursing students about population health and social determinants of health.

Higinio Fernández-Sánchez, BScN, MN, RN

Fernández-Sánchez is a rising star in nursing research at Cizik School of Nursing. He expects to earn a PhD in nursing this year but already has dozens of awards, published papers, and conference presentations to his name, and he serves as a reviewer for six journals published in English and Spanish.

He joined Cizik School of Nursing in 2021 as a research nurse in the Come As You Are (CAYA) research study, led by Diane Santa Maria, DrPH, MSN, RN, dean of the school. In that role, he recruits and manages more than 30 youth experiencing homelessness, delivering a three-month behavioral intervention that employs motivational interviewing and shared decision-making aimed at HIV prevention.

His supervisor, Jennifer Jones, MPH, nominated Fernández-Sánchez for “Salute to Nurses” recognition. She noted the impact he has already had on nursing science along with his work ethic, passion, and intellect.

“Higinio has an unwavering commitment to serve at-risk populations,” Jones said.

Fernández-Sánchez is finishing up his doctoral work at the University of Alberta in Canada. In June, he expects to defend his dissertation on migration and health equity. He hopes to teach and build his program of research after graduation.

A native of Veracruz, Mexico, Fernández-Sánchez spent his childhood in Tyler, Texas, where he earned an associate degree in science from Tyler Junior College. He returned to Mexico to receive a BSN and MSN from Universidad Veracruzana.

Meagan Whisenant, PhD, APRN

When the White House called in January 2023, Whisenant and her colleagues in a multisite study answered.

Whisenant, the John S. Dunn Distinguished Professor in Oncology Nursing, and Jessica T. Jones, MD, are the Houston-area co-principal investigators on the study “Comprehensive Outcomes for After Cancer Health (COACH): The Feasibility and Impact of an mHealth Augmented Coaching Program for Self-Management in Cancer Survivors Who Have Completed Primary Cancer Therapy.” Sponsored by Pack Health, a subsidiary of Quest Diagnostics, the study is testing an intervention that includes weekly calls and electronic delivery of health and wellness information to patients who have completed primary therapy for a variety of cancers.

Investigators in five states are recruiting 500 patients. In the Houston branch of the study, supported by Gilead Sciences, Jones and Whisenant will work with 150 women affected by metastatic breast cancer who have been treated locally. Jones is an assistant professor in the Division of Hematology/Oncology at McGovern Medical School at UTHealth Houston.

The wide-ranging study drew the attention of Catharine Young, PhD, assistant director for Cancer Moonshot Engagement and Policy in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. On January 19, 2023, Jones and Whisenant joined collaborators from other sites on a call with Young to discuss the study.

“Digital health coaching offers a scalable approach to meeting supportive care needs of cancer survivors in their home environment, beyond the clinical care setting,” Whisenant said. “We are excited to explore the usefulness of digital health coaching for self-management of symptoms and general wellness.”

Whisenant joined Cizik School of Nursing’s Department of Research in 2020 and is principal or co-principal investigator on more than $1.4 million in research grants funded by federal, state, and private entities that focus on symptoms associated with chronic disease and behavioral interventions for improving the patient and family caregiver symptom experience. She holds a PhD in nursing from the University of Utah College of Nursing, an MSN on the family nurse practitioner track from Cizik School of Nursing, and a BSN from New York University College of Nursing. She has also completed four postgraduate programs, including one at McWilliams School of Biomedical Informatics at UTHealth Houston.

Jessica Carrillo, Pacesetter BSN student

Carrillo met her mentor, Cizik School of Nursing alumna Melissa Lopez, BSN, RN, as a 14-year-old patient being treated for cancer at Texas Children’s Hospital. Nine years later Lopez, who received the Houston Chronicle “Salute to Nurses” scholarship in 2013, paid it forward by nominating Carrillo for the award.

“It’s where I found my passion,” Carrillo says of her year-long experience with osteosarcoma. “Melissa was my example of what I wanted to be as a nurse.”

Through chemotherapy, infections, and surgery, Lopez encouraged Carrillo and pushed her to not give up. The pair developed a bond, and Lopez brought Carrillo to visit Cizik School of Nursing and provided tips on succeeding in the accelerated Pacesetter BSN program.

“Even during the hardest part of her treatment, Jessica was always kind and thoughtful,” Lopez said. “Soon after the end of her treatment, she expressed her desire to become a pediatric oncology nurse. Knowing that she was the first in her family to pursue a college degree, I volunteered to be her mentor. I am so very proud to see all that she has accomplished and can’t wait to call her a co-worker.”

Carrillo is finishing up her second semester while working part-time as a personal care assistant at a pediatric hospital, where she sometimes helps children with cancer.

“I can’t imagine going to work and doing something more amazing and rewarding than helping oncology patients,” Carrillo said.

Constanza Veronica-Moreno, Pacesetter BSN student

“As a nurse, you care for whoever comes to you,” Veronica-Moreno said of her choice of nursing as a health care profession. She has seen firsthand what that means for uninsured families.

Veronica-Moreno’s family moved to Houston from Guanajuato, Mexico, when she was 6 years old.

“Growing up here, we never had health insurance until the past two years,” she said. “I saw that there were many people like me in the same situation.” Sometimes her family visited local clinics, and at other times they traveled back to Mexico for health care.

Veronica-Moreno is on track to graduate in May and has already lined up a job in the emergency department at Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center, where she looks forward to working with a widely diverse patient population.

She has also been an active member of the Cizik School of Nursing Student Government Organization, currently serving as an S2 cohort representative. “It’s been a wonderful experience,” she said. “I have gotten to know the faculty, and I have really been able to see how well structured the program is.”

UT Physicians Nurses

UT Physicians nurses were honored for their exceptional efforts in providing compassionate care and clinical support.

Lauren Cantu, RN

As an assistant nurse manager, Cantu has a passion for mentoring and training others.

“What I love most about my role is helping others to develop their skills but also optimizing our department in order to provide excellent patient care,” she said.

After learning of her nomination, Cantu was overcome with gratitude.

“First and foremost, I would like to thank my boss and mentor, Robin Riggs, MSN, RN, senior nurse manager of the UT Physicians Nurse Triage Center, for believing in me and encouraging my growth as a leader,” she shared. “I would also like to thank my nursing staff who have always supported me and put their trust in me to lead them in this department.”

Felecia Peterson, RN

Many emotions passed over Peterson upon learning of her nomination.

“Initially, I thought it was a spam email. Then once I realized it was real, I was surprised, overwhelmed, and humbled all in the same day,” she said.

As a student nurse in 1987, Peterson worked at a local hospital that served predominantly low-income patients. From there, she received her degree in nursing from Prairie View A&M University and began working with babies in a hospital setting in a neonatal intensive care unit. Today, she is a nurse case manager working in the UT Physicians Obstetrics and Gynecology Continuity Clinic.

“I get to do what I love — helping patients right where they are. I coordinate care, encourage, support, motivate, educate, review medication, assess for barriers, refer to community resources, and always advocate,” she said.

Lois Sciba, RN

At the age of 48, Sciba graduated from nursing school after deciding she needed a career change. Her experience ranges from the neonatal intensive care unit in a hospital setting to working with adult patients in surgical services.

Currently, her role focuses on research at the UTHealth Houston Neurosciences Neurocognitive Disorders Clinic.

“I found my home there,” Sciba said. “Interacting with my patients and co-workers is so rewarding. I love my job and working for UT Physicians and UTHealth Houston.”

Melissa Hull, NP

A nurse practitioner, Hull cares for patients at the UTHealth Houston Neurosciences – Katy clinic.

“I love the puzzle of neurology,” she said. “I feel like nursing stands apart from other provider roles due to the emphasis on patient education and involving patients in the decisions of their own health care.”

Although Hull prefers to avoid the spotlight, she is proud that the work she’s doing is being recognized and feels appreciative of those who have supported her journey.

“I have had fellow nurses and physicians push me in my career to continue my studies and do harder things. My family has always championed my goal of becoming a nurse and has allowed me to further my education by providing me support while doing my job,” she said.

Katenia Russell, LVN

Russell loves one simple thing about nursing — helping others.

“I began my career in HIV care in 1998 and transitioned to primary care after eight years. Today, I am a clinic coordinator at the UT Physicians Orthopedics at Memorial Hermann | Rocket Sports Medicine Institute – Memorial City clinic,” she said.

After learning she was nominated, Russell immediately wanted to thank God, her family and friends, and her colleagues both past and present for believing in her. She also offered advice for those beginning their nursing career.

“Always do your best, stay humble, remember your name and word is your bond, and lastly, never stop learning,” she said.

Kathryn Greff, RN

Greff began her career as a nurse’s aide in 1977. That’s where her love of labor and delivery began — by timing contractions and becoming a scrub tech.

Greff graduated from the University of St. Thomas in 1980 and worked for many years in St. Joseph Medical Center’s labor and delivery department.

Her current position embodies that same passion. Greff works with maternal-fetal medicine and OB-GYN experts at the UT Physicians Women’s Center – Bellaire Station clinic.

“I love being able to help people in a great work environment,” she said. “There’s nothing better than finding out we’ve made a difference in someone’s life.”

Mary Young, LVN

With a nursing career that spans nearly four decades, Young said her compassionate nature led her to this field.

“I am proud to be a part of UT Physicians,” Young said. “I was excited to hear about receiving this award. I have always tried to work really hard.”

Most recently, Young was serving as a float pool nurse and provided support for COVID-19 testing.

“There are so many amazing nurses at UT Physicians,” Young added. “I would like them to know how much they mean to me and the university.”

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