Spreading Their Wings: MSK Nurses Support Each Other through Mentorship

Memorial Sloan Kettering nurses Christina Giwa and Odalis Cortes

"Fundamentally, we're nurses," says Christina Giwa (left, with her mentee Odalis Cortes). "There's always that foundation."

Some nurses administer lifesaving treatments. Some conduct research. Some educate the next generation of nurses. And that’s just scratching the surface.

At their core, nurses want to help others, whether that means patients and families or their own colleagues. Recognizing that fundamental belief, nurses at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center developed Mentoring @ MSK. It’s a mentoring program that gives nurses the opportunity to expand their skills and get a glimpse at different careers in the field. It is also open to advanced practice providers at MSK, which include nurse practitioners, physician assistants, and certified registered nurse anesthetists. Since its inception in 2016, nearly 400 mentoring partnerships have been established.

“Mentoring @ MSK is a testament to the power of human connections,” says program leader Cortney Miller. “Those connections facilitate professional development and deeper engagement at any career stage.”

The program went virtual in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but that didn’t stop it. For six months, senior quality management nurse Christina Giwa mentored nurse case manager Odalis Cortes. In their roles, Christina interprets data to improve patient care, and Odalis helps coordinate discharge plans for patients leaving the hospital. Here, they share what they took from the mentoring program and how it’s helped them become better nurses at MSK.

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Why were you both interested in the mentorship program?

Christina: COVID-19 gave everyone an opportunity to reassess their priorities. I reached out to the mentorship program lead and said, “I’m interested. How can I help?”

Odalis: I wanted to know what quality management nurses do. Last year, I went to a quality management meeting and Christina was there. I remembered to take note of her name. Christina, you knew a lot in that meeting, and when I applied to the mentoring program, I saw your name as one of the mentors. I thought, this is someone who has a lot of information.

Christina: The program matches you with a mentee. It’s good to have someone help you navigate who does what. I liked that [Odalis’s] background was in a variety of professional roles.

How did your roles complement each other for the program?

Christina: Fundamentally, we’re nurses. There’s always that foundation. She was at a place in her career where she wanted to explore different things. There’s something magical about someone ready to branch out.

Odalis: My initial goal was to learn about quality management nursing at MSK. As we kept meeting, my goals kept leading into new ones, such as learning how to balance day-to-day patient care with long-term projects to improve quality of care. I did a lot of self-reflection.

Christina: Some people have very concrete goals, like applying for a promotion. Odalis wanted to learn more about our department. I had to think about how to share that knowledge. We talked about how she could find opportunities to flex her muscles in quality management in her current role, like volunteering for committees.

Christina, how did you adapt to Odalis’s changing goals?

Christina: As a nurse, flexibility is part of my job. The structure of the mentoring program helps foster that. There was flexibility to bring her to meetings and have her meet different people.

Odalis: I was able to meet leaders and be a part of everyday projects. It was exactly what I wanted to accomplish.

What were your meetings like?

Odalis: Our first meeting was to set goals. Christina and I decided to meet every two weeks.

Christina: I would check in on how she was doing, and then we would look back at anything we started but didn’t complete. For example, say she was able to accompany me to a meeting, but we didn’t get to talk after it. Our next meetup would be, “Let’s talk about your experience in that meeting. What questions do you have for me?”

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What did you learn from each other?

Christina: I’m a little reserved, so it was nice to be around someone who knew what they wanted and was willing to do whatever it took to learn.

Odalis: Christina really took the time to help me. If I wanted to go five feet she’d say, “Why don’t we go ten? I’m going to introduce you to this person, take you to this unit, and take you to this committee.” It was a gentle nudge, but one that I appreciated. It helped me be transparent with my supervisor and say, “This is what I’m interested in.” Now, I’m on other case management committees.

Christina: I wanted to help her get comfortable raising her hand in a meeting or having that meeting with her boss and saying, “I’m interested in spreading my wings.” The other thing I learned from Odalis was that you can be passionate about your career and have a life outside of it.

Odalis: Our work-life discussions centered on the importance of time management and the value of taking restorative breaks.

What does it say about MSK that we have this mentorship program?

Christina: It says they’re invested in the growth of their nursing department and in us as people, not just as staff. You have protected time and resources to commit to it.

Odalis: It shows how supportive they are of employee success.

What is your relationship like now?

Christina: We check in about once a month. We have each other’s phone numbers, too, so if something comes up, she knows how to reach me. And now she’s also a resource for me if I have any questions about case management.

Odalis: I made it a point to tell her before this ended, “I’m still going to call you!” And she said, “For sure.”