The center’s main mission is young African-American men who have multiple relatives with prostate cancer. “They are the toughest in terms of the statistics,” says Santiago. “I sit down with them, have an informed conversation, explain their options and rights as patients. We’ve been pretty convincing.”
One of the ways they convince men to seek treatment is through community events, often held at faith-based organizations. “We have support group members get up and tell their stories,” she says. “It’s very powerful when a man gets up and says, ‘I was scared, too. I took the chance, and they found cancer, but now I am cancer-free.' ”
One of the most memorable patients was an undocumented immigrant from China who had metastasized prostate cancer. When he first came to the center, he had an extremely high PSA. After his visit, his daughter called and said he was in a lot of pain, couldn’t sit and could barely stand. “We told him to go to the emergency room because we can’t treat pain here in the clinic,” Santiago says. The hospital admitted the man. Santiago followed him there, making sure the right residents were seeing him and that his pain was managed well.
“When he left the hospital, he was a totally different person,” she says. “He was sitting up, laughing and talking with his family. His wife thanked us and started crying. She thought her husband was going to die because they had no money and no insurance.” The patient is home now, Santiago says, and with the potential for an excellent quality of life and no pain. The center is paying for his treatment, because he is not eligible for health insurance.
Marcus McKinney, vice president of community health equity and health policy at Saint Francis Hospital and Medical Center, says Santiago’s leadership and outreach has helped the program to grow. “As nurse navigator, part of her work is helping our system change, to understand what health equity is and to really address individual patient needs,” he says. “Rebecca does a phenomenal job of training other navigators as well as engaging with patients directly.”
The center’s practice is growing quickly via word of mouth and thanks to Santiago’s tireless efforts in the community, McKinney says. To help meet the growing need, Santiago is working to train other nurse navigators at Saint Francis. She also has developed and given a community navigator 101 training, working with people in the community, often from faith-based organizations, who want to be patient advocates. “They’re receiving the same type of training that a nurse navigator does, but with a spiritual component to match the religion they practice,” she explains.
The center hopes to hire more nurses, and recently added several new patient navigators and community health workers. “We have a lot of work to do,” Santiago says. “We want to tackle other chronic conditions, such as diabetes, which is huge here, especially in African-American and Latino communities.”