Rebecca Santiago, R.N., doesn’t stop her work as a community health nurse navigator at Saint Francis Care’s Curtis D. Robinson Center for Health Equity just because it’s the weekend. Sunday mornings will find her in the Hartford, Conn., area at a church, mosque, barber shop or beauty salon, reaching out to people who need medical care but don’t know how to access it. She may be taking someone’s blood pressure or drawing blood for a prostate cancer screening. And when those tests turn up problems, Santiago is the one who helps these low-income and often-uninsured folks find a doctor, navigate the maze of health insurance options and get proper treatment.
“People are very afraid of our complex health care system,” she says. “Some of them don’t speak the language, which is very scary as well. I sit with them, go with them to appointments, explain what is going on, break the doctor’s lingo down into terms they can understand.”
She also helps people get health insurance and, if they can’t, the center covers their care. “We had a patient who had metastatic prostate cancer and wasn’t treated,” Santiago recalls. “When the son asked the doctor why he didn’t treat him, he said he didn’t think the patient could afford it. I was shocked. How could he make that assumption? A lot of patients we see face that unconscious bias.”
Santiago began working at the center in 2012. “When I first started here, our primary focus was helping African-American men with prostate cancer navigate health insurance and treatment,” she says. “We’d bring them in after diagnosis and make sure they were referred to the right urologist, help them understand the difference between choosing watchful waiting, or active surveillance and more active treatment.” Santiago would follow up with them, making sure they kept having their PSA levels tested, a marker of prostate cancer progression.
Santiago has a personal history that has motivated her to help others. “Cancer is something I’ve been involved with for a long time, both as a nurse and personally,” she says. “I lost my mom to esophageal cancer in 2011. She had reflux for a long time, and walked around with symptoms for years, using home remedies to manage her condition. She didn’t know about the tests that would screen for cancer until it was too late.”