Helping the Hospital Feel Like Home: Chief Nursing Officer Jesus Cepero on how workforce diversity makes patients feel welcome

When Jesus Cepero emigrated with his family to the United States from Cuba at age 7, he didn’t realize that he would soon be acting as his parents’ medical translator.

Like most children immersed in a new language, Cepero quickly picked up English, which he spoke at school and with friends. Meanwhile, his family continued to speak Spanish together at their new home in New Jersey.

“My parents were non-English-speaking for their whole lives here in the United States,” said Cepero, PhD, RN. Doctors’ appointments became a challenge, as the physicians his parents saw weren’t set up to provide care in Spanish. “Even as a child, I had to take the responsibility of translating for them, and as a child, of course you don’t know the medical terminology, names of diseases, or anything else.”

As an adult, Cepero has advanced through the health care workforce from paramedic to emergency-room nurse to health care leader and nurse-scientist. Along the way, his family’s experiences have kept him alert to the need for culturally competent care for patients of all backgrounds. Now senior vice president of Patient Care Services and chief nursing officer at Stanford Medicine Children’s Health, Cepero continues to shape how the health care system embraces and promotes diversity.

As Stanford Medicine celebrates Hispanic Heritage Month, Cepero reflected on how his journey has taught him the benefits of workforce diversity for health care workers, hospitals, and, most important, for patients and families.

A journey of caring

Cepero was drawn into health care by a high school class that offered training as an emergency medical technician. The training gave him a path to join the local volunteer ambulance company.

“At 16 1/2, I was on an ambulance, going around my town helping people,” he said. “I really fell in love with the kind of reward that you get from helping someone who is ill or injured.”

The volunteer role gave Cepero his first glimpse of emergency medicine. Accompanying patients to the hospital, he felt an immediate connection: “When I looked at what nurses did in the emergency room, I said, ‘That’s me! That’s what I want to do when I grow up,’” he recalled.

Cepero soon became certified as a paramedic, working as a first responder to pay his way through nursing school. He got his first nursing job at a Level 1 trauma center in Newark, New Jersey, in 1983, eventually working in emergency medicine, critical care nursing, and transport nursing—both in ambulances and as a helicopter nurse. He gravitated toward caring for children and their families in high-stakes situations.

“Emergency and critical care nursing require an intense, one-on-one kind of care,” he said. “When someone is critically ill or injured, that’s the most difficult time in their life. For me, the reward was the victories of people getting better and leaving the unit, or the feeling of supporting them and their families when there was not going to be a good outcome. That’s where I felt I was doing the most good.”

Connecting with patients

Along the way, Cepero’s heritage supercharged his ability to connect to patients, such as a teenage girl in critical care who was turning 15 while hospitalized. She was upset about missing her quinceañera.

Cepero understood the emotional significance of this milestone, a traditional 15th-birthday celebration held in many Hispanic cultures to mark a girl’s transition to adulthood. It includes both a religious service and a big party for the honoree.

“I was able to connect with that patient, not only to empathize, but to share the hope that she’d be able to celebrate her quinceañera in a few months when she was out of the hospital,” Cepero said. “Her emotional state might not have been recognized by somebody who didn’t know the culture.”

Today, as a nurse leader, Cepero remains committed to nurturing a diverse workforce. A big part of his job is to coach nurses who are furthering their education and their career trajectories. He earned a master’s degree in public administration, and a master’s in nursing focused on nursing leadership, in 2000, and a PhD in 2012, to promote his ability to mentor the nurses he leads.

And he wants to attract more people from all backgrounds to health care.

“I’m proud of our proportion of Hispanic nurses, but I wish to see more cultural diversity,” Cepero said. Nationally, 11% of nurses identify as Hispanic. At Stanford Medicine Children’s Health, 9% of nurses are Hispanic. That may sound great, but it still doesn’t reflect the organization’s patient population: Almost a third of its patients are of Hispanic heritage, and most of those are primarily Spanish-speaking.

Cepero ultimately aims to expand staff diversity across all dimensions so that the organization’s people reflect the broad diversity of the Bay Area and the global population that Stanford Medicine serves. His aspiration informs many of his leadership activities, including community outreach to encourage young people to consider careers in health care—he’d like to see more men enter nursing careers, for instance—and his work to nurture fellow nurses as they bring new forms of evidence-based medicine and cultural awareness and skills to the bedside.

For Cepero, the satisfaction of being able to connect with families’ cultural backgrounds and to help them feel at home in the hospital never gets old. It’s a satisfying contrast to his struggles as a child to bridge the gaps between his parents and their doctors.

“I always like it when I walk into patients’ rooms, their moms and dads are there, and once I introduce myself—‘My name is Jesus’—they go immediately into Spanish,” he said. “For me to have that communication, to hear if there are any patient-care concerns in their language, and to know there is somebody listening that understands them is so rewarding. I think it makes a big difference.”


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