2018 Excellence in Nursing Awards

We honor fifteen of the state's best caretakers, as nominated by their colleagues.

As the nursing field continues to grow, so do we. This year Rhode Island Monthly and the Rhode Island State Nurses Association are excited to welcome two new categories to our annual Excellence in Nursing Awards: Senior Student Nurse of the Year in an RN Program and Licensed Practical Nurse of the Year! Congrats to our winners and a massive thank you to them and to all of the other unsung heroes in the health care industry.

Panel of Judges: Karen Ballard, RN, MSN of the American Nurses Association — New York; Irene Eaton, RN, MSN of the American Nurses Association — Maine; and Christine Ryan, RN, MA of the American Nurses Association — Vermont.

Nurse Leader of the Year


Photograph by James Jones

Valerie Almeida-Monroe, RN, BSN
Nurse Director at Clinica Esperanza / Hope Clinic

What made you want to be a nurse? I knew I wanted to be a nurse since I was about four years old; I think my parents first instilled that in me. Then, when I was about twelve, I had a surgery. While I was in the hospital, I spoke a lot with the different nurses that were caring for me and that experience solidified it for me. I wanted to be just like them.

Tell us more about Clinica Esperanza and your role as director. Clinica Esperanza is a free clinic, and part of its mission is to help people in the local community who don’t have insurance. It also serves as a place that can provide culturally appropriate care to vulnerable populations. As the director, I think one of the biggest roles I have is making sure that the highest quality of care is given to each and every patient, and making sure that everyone on the staff is fully equipped to do what’s expected of them. So, while some people might believe that being in a leadership role means that you’re doing less nursing because you don’t have as much face-to-face time with the patients, I’d say the opposite. You’re still advocating and caring for the patients, but on a larger scale. You have a larger reach.

What’s your favorite part about your job? I work a great deal with data and so I get to really see the impact that we have. Being a free clinic, we’re not heavily funded, but we’re able to make each dollar stretch and count. I also really enjoy when we have our victories and are able to get people the services they need. For example, I once had a patient come in with a broken nose as a result of domestic violence. She was seeking medical assistance, but we learned she also had a lot of other issues relating to immigration, food access, self-esteem, finding a job and taking care of her children. Fortunately, we were able to not only help with her injuries, but also assist in some of those other areas. She just recently came back to visit after having her surgery, and she looks like a completely different person. A lot of those concerns have now been resolved, and you can see the change. It just goes to show that it’s so important to treat the whole person.

Certified Nurse Midwife of the Year


Photograph by James Jones

Michelle Palmer, MS, CNM, RN, FACNM
Assistant Clinical Professor at the University of Rhode Island; Certified Nurse Midwife at Landmark Medical Center and at Rhode Island Home Birth and Hope Family Health

What made you want to be a CNM? My original degree was actually in art history. While obtaining that degree, however, I ended up taking a trip out of the country to study Peruvian architecture, and on that trip my friend found out that she was pregnant. The following year, she chose to have her baby at home with a midwife in attendance. I had never done anything with the sciences before that point — I always stuck to art — but when I saw that baby being born, I knew midwifery was what I wanted to do. I just couldn’t get enough, and I still can’t get enough. Anything about pregnancy, birth stories or newborns — I’m a sponge.

Do you have any favorite patient stories? As someone who attends birth in the home, I have a special place in my heart for the women who end up changing their initial birth plans and transferring from their home to a facility. A lot of people will think, “Oh, she had a failed homebirth,” but I don’t look at a transfer as a failure. I look at it as she gave birth where she needed to give birth. I always have great relationships with the rest of the health care team, and so we’re able to seamlessly transfer someone if that needs to happen, and they’re transitioned in a way that holds the sacredness of their birth experience intact. Which is important. The folks at Landmark are amazing; the interprofessional model they have, where we’re able to transfer, is something really special in Rhode Island. A hidden gem, I’d say. At Landmark, nursing has the same voice that midwifery has, that pediatrics, obstetrics and anesthesia have, and it all comes together to give the patient the best experience. But I also want to highlight these patients in particular because, in a way, they become those women who don’t have a place: they’re not a hospital-birthing woman, yet they’re not a home-birthing woman anymore. They do have a home, though: they’re mothers and they still get to walk away with, “I did this.”

What’s some go-to advice that you give your students? There’s always room for one more good person in the profession. A lot of students will come in feeling that they don’t have a lot to offer, so my clinical is usually where they’re really working on the confidence to walk into a room, take in what’s going on and then using their presence to guide the patient’s care. It’s important to know how to do your vital signs and how to read labs, but it’s also important to listen to the patient and understand their goals. Nursing is different from medicine. I don’t have any regrets about having an art history degree prior to my health education because I know that the art of health care is just as important as the skill of health care.

Licensed Practical Nurse of the Year


Photograph by James Jones

Jim Vigeant, LPN
Staff Nurse at the Alcohol and Drug Inpatient Unit at Butler Hospital

What made you want to be a nurse? From a young age, I always liked helping people. There was this self-gratification that I got when I helped someone, and I never expected anything in return. I always had the idea of going into the medical field in the back of my mind, but I didn’t have the self-esteem to see it through. Years later, when I was going through recovery — I had struggled with addiction from the time I was a teenager all the way to when I was about thirty-three years old — my sponsor told me that I could be anything that I wanted to be as long as I stayed clean. Something just clicked. It was the push I needed to finally pursue it; I think I was about a year sober when I said, “Okay, I want to do something with my life. I want to go to nursing school.”

What are the most challenging parts of your job? The most rewarding? The most challenging part is breaking through the barriers and trying to get across to patients that they can become a part of society again. The recidivism rate is high, especially with the opioid crisis that’s going on, so it’s tough. There’s nothing easy about getting clean and sober. You see people at their worst: they’re in pain, they’re angry, they’ve lost everything. Alcohol and drugs don’t discriminate; I’ve detoxed doctors, lawyers, policemen, everyone. But I’ve been in their shoes, so I can understand what they’re going through. And I think they can feel that when I communicate with them and share little pieces of my own recovery. Of course, I don’t go into much detail, but I try to pass that message along that they can do anything if they just get through this. To see the glimmer of hope in someone’s eyes that they can actually recover from this disease — that’s the most rewarding bit. It’s the best when someone comes back to visit after ninety days, or six months or a year down the line to share with the staff and our current patients that they’ve made it.

Do you have any favorite nursing memories? I have some stories that are funny from school, but they may not be fit for print! As for my current position, I work with a great team. Safety checks are the most important part of our jobs, and we’ve actually saved a couple of people’s lives. Being in a psychiatric hospital, you see a lot of dual diagnoses of addiction and depression, so we’ve found people in distress and we’ve performed CPR to save their lives. That’s always an incredible thing to be a part of.

Clinical Practice Nurse of the Year


Photograph by James Jones

Theodore “TJ” Sarrazin, RN
Registered Nurse at Our Lady of Fatima —Critical Care Unit

What made you want to be a nurse? Well, before I was a nurse, I was an auto mechanic for twelve years. It was great, but I have a lot of family members who work in the medical field and it seemed like a really fulfilling career, so I figured I’d give it a try, too. I picked nursing and I loved it from day one. Especially because one of my first instructors, Mrs. Corsetti at CCRI, really set the foundation for me.

What’s the best part of your job? Helping people, hands down. I always tell everyone in my unit to take care of the whole patient. You can bring them medication or a drink if they need it, but you’re also taking care of other issues. They may have a family member that needs reassurance, or a pet at home that needs to be fed, so you’re trying to get those things taken care of as well. No matter what you’re doing for them, you know that you’re helping them get through a tough time in their life. It’s the best feeling; you can really make a difference.

Do you have any favorite memories? There’s one that stands out: I had a fairly young patient who was N-stage cancer, but every time I went to her room she was just so full of life. She would always smile, talk kindly and laugh with her husband. I would think to myself: “How can this person die in just a few months?” But she was always so happy, so content, so upbeat. She knew what was transpiring and she was making the best of her situation. It was truly inspiring.

Why should others consider nursing as a career? You can go in so many different directions. You can be a telenurse, a bedside nurse, a traveling nurse, an anesthetist — your options are endless. Plus, it’s growing: now you can even get your doctorate in nursing. Especially for anyone who is interested in learning, this is the career for you. You learn something every single day.

Clinical Nurse Educator of the Year


Photograph by James Jones

Diane D’Ambra, RN, MS, WCC, WCN
Director of Education at Roger Williams Medical Center

What made you want to be a nurse? When I was eleven years old, my father had a brain tumor and had brain surgery. Back in those days, they were in the hospital for months during recovery. So, every day after school, my sister and I would take two buses to get to St. Joseph’s Hospital and feed him dinner. I remember the nurses were amazing. They were so caring and so good to us; they always had a sandwich ready for my sister and me to share. And I thought, “You know, I want to be in a caring profession like that.” Then, when I went to high school and got involved in the sciences, I thought, “Actually, I want to be a scientist!” But that option wasn’t available to me at the time. So, I got scholarships for nursing school and it was there that I realized that nurses are scientists. Everything we do is evidence-based. It was, and still is, the perfect profession for me.

What’s the most rewarding part about being a nurse? I think the best part is that people let me into their lives at a time when they’re most vulnerable. It’s an honor to be part of their journey, and to hopefully make their journey a bit easier.

What go-to advice do you always give your students? I’ll tell you, the students are amazing. They come to me with such passion, and I learn from them just as much as they learn from me. I always tell them if they’re passionate about what they do, then it’s not work. I’ve been in this field for forty-nine years and I feel like I have the same passion for learning, for teaching and for caring for patients that I did when I started. So, I tell them to follow their passion. And then, I always quote Einstein. He says that education is not the learning of facts, but the training of the mind to think. I feel, as an educator, that that is my job: to train my students’ minds to think. People often say, “Think outside of the box.” But there should be no box in the first place. You should be able to think without any restraints. Why have a box? Believe it or not, some of the most creative people I know are nurses.