Carmen Mendez’s professional life began out of love for her mother.
Love was the driving force behind her decision to go to nursing school. Now, as perioperative nurse liaison for the Josie Robertson Surgery Center, she is driven by compassion and empathy for the family members of patients undergoing surgery. As nurse liaison, she communicates with family members throughout a patient’s surgery, providing updates and answering questions, and helps them cope during a very stressful time. She understands because a similar experience to theirs became the defining event of her life.
The Need to Know
When Carmen was in her mid-20s, her mother got very sick. Their family didn’t have health insurance and none of them ever went to doctors, so her mom’s high blood pressure had gone untreated for years. Eventually, it led to kidney failure.
“I was my mom’s liaison with the doctors, and I didn’t understand what they were saying,” remembers Carmen. “That’s when I decided to go to nursing school. I thought, ’If this is going to be my mom’s reality, I want to figure it out.’ It was all to help my mom.”
Carmen enrolled in the two-year nursing program at Hostos Community College and earned her associate degree. Before long, she was able to have informed conversations with her mother’s care team and feel secure in the decisions being made, including the decision for her mother to have a kidney transplant, courtesy of one of Carmen’s brothers. The transplant was 20 years ago: mother, brother, and kidney are all doing well today.
In addition to helping her mom, Carmen made a discovery. “I realized that I loved nursing!” she says. “Learning what I needed to know as a nurse was like a puzzle that I was able to put together. I could see the whole picture and it made sense to me.”
First in Her Family
Born in the South Bronx, Carmen was the first and only girl in her family. When she was six years old, her parents divorced and Carmen moved with her mother and three older brothers to Puerto Rico, which is where both her parents were raised. They stayed for about six years, allowing Carmen to become fluent in Spanish and develop a love for Puerto Rican culture.
After returning to New York, she enrolled at Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts (commonly known as the “Fame” school, a reference to the 1980 film inspired by the school) where she was a vocal major.
When she graduated, she became the first in her family to earn her high school diploma. But she never imagined a career as a singer, nor did she have any illusions about college. “Nobody in my neighborhood went to college,” she says. “It wasn’t something I envisioned for myself.”
After graduation, her after-school job as a pharmacy technician became full-time and Carmen assumed that was her future. Then her mom got sick and everything changed. Suddenly, she became the first in her family to go to college.
The Golden Child
“At Hostos, my professors would talk about one student who went to work at ‘the prestigious Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center,’” Carmen recalls. “I had never heard of MSK before, but I recognized that this student was the golden child in the nursing school.” After she earned her degree from Hostos, Carmen applied to MSK, although she wasn’t expecting anything.
“I was hired on the spot. I couldn’t believe it,” she says. “I couldn’t wait to tell my professors so that I could be the golden child that they talked about!”
In 2004, Carmen joined MSK on the 14th floor in the thoracic unit, where she stayed until 2010. “I enjoyed working with surgical patients, so when they moved thoracic surgery to the 18th floor, I decided to follow,” she says. She also decided to get her bachelor’s degree, graduating from Chamberlain University College of Nursing in 2014.
Two years later, she went even further, earning a Master of Nursing Education from Chamberlain and accepting a new role as night supervisor at Josie Robertson Surgery Center when it opened in 2016. Today, she also works as a clinical adjunct professor at Pace University, a post she’s held for two years. “I wanted to let the future of nursing know that if I can do it, you can do it — and I’ll show you how,” she says.
The Heart of It All: Family and the Future
As her career was taking off, Carmen’s personal life also bloomed: She got married and had a child, a daughter named Addison. But her beautiful baby never babbled the way others did — eventually, she was diagnosed with autism. Now in the 9th grade, Addison enjoys amusement parks, dolls, and trips to Puerto Rico — and loves the water. “She’s my little mermaid,” says Carmen.
Conversations are hard for Addison. She struggles with abstract questions but does well when asked something specific.
“It’s been a challenge,” says Carmen. “But everything I’ve been through has prepared me to be Addison’s mother.”
During her first 15 years at MSK, before being named nurse liaison at the Josie Robertson Surgery Center, Carmen always worked the night shift because it allowed her to spend days with her daughter. “I was tired much of the time, but it was worth it,” she says. “I was able to be with Addison and help her in ways I couldn’t have if I’d been at work. She’s strong and increasingly independent — she has a bright future.”
Carmen is committed not only to her daughter’s future, but to the future of her profession.
As a member of the National Association of Hispanic Nurses, she recently participated in a public service announcement (PSA), which aired on July 2 on Univision and Telemundo. Created in response to the looming national nurse shortage, the goal of the PSA was to encourage young people to go into nursing. It features a group of Hispanic/Latinx nurses singing the national anthem in Spanish — accompanied at the end by a young girl. It’s a stirring tribute to American ideals, the nursing profession, and the generation everyone is counting on to carry the torch into the future.
The Meaning of Hispanic Heritage Month
“When I first started at MSK 17 years ago, I was one of only three Hispanic nurses out of about 50 in my unit,” recalls Carmen. “I found myself sometimes curbing my language and my personality because I wasn’t sure how to be.”
But things have changed. “We’ve become more diverse and there’s much more awareness of inclusivity, especially in the last couple of years. It’s really nice to see more people from my culture and to come together to celebrate our heritage.”