An Interview with Winner Vanessa Fortin

Health and Wellness, Staff Perspectives

woman smiling in a chair

The Arc’s Vanessa Fortin was honored this year with the Rochester Business Journal Health Care Hero award in the Special Needs category

This month the Rochester Business Journal announced their Health Care Heroes awards, and for the third consecutive year, a staff member at The Arc of Monroe has been recognized. Vanessa Fortin, RN and RN Coordinator was honored in the Special Needs category. The awards recognize excellence, promote innovation and honor the efforts of organizations and individuals making a significant impact on the quality of health care in the Rochester area. Vanessa and all the winners will be honored during a virtual celebration at noon on Tuesday, May 11.

Let’s meet Vanessa:
I am humbled to have been nominated for the “Health Care Heroes” by my colleagues. I have spent the last 20 years of my career here in nursing. As an RN and RN Coordinator, I am responsible for providing oversight and medical support to all of our day habilitation programs, which serve over 350 people, as well as provide orientation and training for RNs. As is typical in the field, nursing shortages are a concern, and I fill in whenever needed.

Serving a diverse population with intellectual and developmental disabilities and many different diagnosis is complex. People we support often can’t say “I have a headache” and be treated as such. You have to get to know a person, to understand psyho-social, mental health, family and friend issues, friend so you can see what the real issue is. You have to have a full understanding of their medical history and behaviors so that you can accurately provide medical treatment. People would say that my ability to develop relationships with all people, regardless of their ability or disability, is my strength. It comes naturally to me. It’s just who I am.

I’m often referred to as the “go-to person,” the one who steps in wherever needed. When the pandemic hit, I became a sponge, learning everything about this virus so that I could become an advisor to people across the agency. Any of our 800 staff who exhibits symptoms of COVID-19 is directed to call me, and they do, day or night. I assess their symptoms, provide direction for them, administer COVID-19 tests, monitor their symptoms when they are sick, and clear people to return to work if they test positive. I’ve also been responsible for finding resources to ensure that we have all of the supplies we needed when they were difficult to get, including PPE (personal protective equipment), hand sanitizer, disinfectant wipes.

When one of our residential homes was hit hard during the first surge of COVID-19, infecting all of the people who live there, no nurse wanted to work there. It didn’t matter what was on my plate, I went there, no hesitation to ensure the health and safety of all who lived in the home and to contain the spread of the virus.

Recently, I did contract the COVID-19 virus. My work never stopped. While recovering, I continued to work from home.  I guess I’m just that kind of person. When I’m needed, I go. I don’t give it a second thought. Some might call it a hero. I just call it doing my job.

Can you describe one example of your impact of health care in our community?
I have spent time in the hospital – the Emergency Room and in intensive care. I bring all of that experience where I can serve the greatest need – providing nursing support to people with intellectual and developmental disabilities and am a fierce advocate for them, when some people would brush them off. I provide education to LPNs and doctors in the community on what to look for, how to monitor behaviors so that they can make evaluations and correct treatment plans. In this way, I’m expanding the knowledge-base of doctors so that they can better treat people with disabilities.

During COVID-19, I’ve impacted the health and well-being of the people we support and the staff who work within The Arc of Monroe by containing the spread of the virus. One way I did this was through the outreach to the head nurse at the DOH asking that 5 of our nursed be trained so that we could offer testing of people. This provided a much better solution to those with mobility issues, and we could receive quicker test results, meaning we could put action plans into place much quicker than if we relied on community resources.

When vaccines for the virus became available, I helped run an on-site vaccination clinic, where we were able to administer vaccines to 335 people we support and staff. During this time, I provided education about the vaccine so that people could make an informed decision and so that they understood the side effects and how to monitor them.

All of the areas that I affected (supplies, testing, vaccine) kept the disease from spreading, and that had a huge impact on our community.

What is your most significant professional accomplishment?
There isn’t anything else that I would have done in my life. I wanted to be a nurse since I was five years, and I have been for over 40 years. It’s about being the best I can in the situation that I am in, and I give it 100%. I am dedicated to providing that to everyone supported at The Arc of Monroe, so that they can have the continuity of care they deserve. I am committed to making sure people we support have the most independent, fulfilling lives as possible. People feel comfortable around me because I am approachable and because I don’t judge. I reach someone where they are. It’s my job to ensure that all people are treated with dignity and they always have personal choices and rights. If there is something I can do to help a person, I do it. I have difficult conversations with people about sex education and alcohol use so that people stay safe.

I am also committed to teaching staff everything I can so that they are successful. I am able to teach them things they don’t learn in medical school, because of limited education on working with people with I/DD. Again, because I am able to establish relationships with staff, they trust me and become better medical providers. I work at their pace, as I recognize not everyone learns at the same time. If they’re not completely comfortable yet, we’ll walk through it together until they are comfortable.

And so, it is my dedication to get to know someone, to learn, understand, and provide guidance that I feel is my most professional, and also personal, accomplishment. If there’s something to do to help someone be better, I’ll do it. It’s that simple.

What Vanessa’s colleagues say about her talents:
Vanessa takes it upon herself to provide exceptional support and service to the people we support and staff. She discerns quickly their individual needs and moves efficiently to provide key information, recommendations, or direction. During this pandemic, Vanessa has been instrumental in making herself available around the clock even if she is not working. Vanessa is a wonderful ambassador for our agency….living our mission and vision each and every day.
— Michael Zazzara, Chief Operating Officer, The Arc of Monroe

Back in March, when COVID hit our area hard, Vanessa immediately stepped up and took charge of coordinating the agencies PPE needs taking on the title of “Inventory Control Nurse.” She assisted making sure staff knew everything she learned about COVID and how to utilize this PPE to keep the people supported and themselves safe, adding the title of “COVID Educator RN” to her role. When our first residence was hit hard with the virus, she unselfishly took on the responsibility for it and everything involved with this responsibility, adding the title “Infection Control Nurse.”
— Sue Sproule, Nurse Educator, The Arc of Monroe

Vanessa is not only a trusted nursing professional, she is a friend to me, to other staff and the people we support. No matter who she is interacting with, she is genuine, and people feel free to be the same exact way around her. She has become an advocate for one of our residents, serving as a family member to her. She picks her up, takes her shopping or to get her hair done, while letting her lead the way and make all of the choices.
— Candace McCracken, Residential Manager, The Arc of Monroe