Erika Hernandez was caught off guard one day in November while working at the Zablocki VA Medical Center in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
CU Nursing MS graduate Erika Hernandez
The University of Colorado College of Nursing at Anschutz Medical Campus student was weeks away from graduating from the college’s Veterans and Military Health Care Leadership program. Hernandez’s boss told her a co-worker was going to be recognized and wanted Hernandez to be in attendance.
In reality – Hernandez was the one being honored with a DAISY Award.
“My co-workers told me to come to the waiting area, and suddenly they mentioned my name. I’m like “Wait a minute, what’s this?’ I felt so tricked, and told them ‘You all tricked me!’,” she says.
A DAISY Award is presented to nurses who are nominated by their patients or colleagues. Hernandez was honored for her work as an RN coordinator at Zablocki’s Coordinated Outpatient Testing Center in Surgical Care.
Hernandez was nominated for her work helping veterans – including reducing wait times and starting a donation drive to collect items for hundreds of veterans in need. She also took the initiative to improve her department with things like improving communication between co-workers, starting team-building activities, and coordinated events for Nurses Week.
“Implementing these things created such a great aura in our unit, and I want people to feel good about what they do,” she says. “It was such an honor to get that recognition, and it showed the impact that I’ve had on my co-workers and our veterans. It was very emotional but very honorable.”
Finding Inspiration to Help
Hernandez decided she was going to make changes after attending CU Nursing’s Veterans and Military Health Conference in May 2023.
Hernandez (second from right) receives a DAISY Award
“Attending that conference was so empowering, and it made me want to give back any way I can,” she says.
The conference began in 2020 and is focused on different approaches to treatment and care for veterans, service members, and their families. It will be held April 25-27 this year.
“I’ve worked with veterans for the last 15 years, and there’s so much more I can do for their care,” Hernandez says. “They’ve been exposed to so much, and their healthcare needs are different than civilians.”
Hernandez says that’s why she enrolled in CU Nursing’s VMHC program, and why she wanted to work at the VA.
“Getting this degree is so empowering. It’s allowing me to connect and work with veterans in a better way,” she says. “I’m inspired to be a better listener. I have more patience, and a true overall appreciation for those who served, so it’s motivated me to continue giving great care.”
Continuing Her Education
Hernandez has been a nurse for more than twenty years and didn’t plan on pursuing a higher degree until she heard about the VMHC program.
“It’s never too late to pursue your dreams,” she says. “The program was so inspiring and it helps you build the courage to become a better person and a better nurse. It’s been life-changing.”
It’s been so life-changing that she’s been motivated to get another degree from CU Nursing. She’s enrolled in the college’s DNP program.
“I got to thinking about what to do with my DNP, and it’s really going to allow me to improve my nursing capabilities and show how much I want to improve care for our veterans,” she says.
Hernandez wants to use her degree to educate nurses or other healthcare professionals in the community about how to care for veterans and service members. She says it’s important for VA employees to learn about military culture.
“To have a veteran’s point of view really bridged the gap,” she says. “I have a colleague who is a veteran, and they told me “Okay, you’re trying to make people understand. You really get it and you really want to help’.”