From Wynwood to Sylvester: A Nurse Practioner Finds Her Calling
Anastasia Santiago reflects on her career path that started with a modest, Miami upbringing and during which the talents that inform her work as a nurse practitioner first surfaced.
Anastasia Santiago’s path to a clinical nursing career has been circuitous and replete with obstacles, naysayers, and long days of balancing work and school.
But her persistence in overcoming barriers inform the care she now provides at Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center, part of UHealth — University of Miami Health System.
“Because of my own childhood challenges, I feel I can read between the lines and see beyond what’s right in front of me,” said Santiago, DNP, APRN, FNP-BC, AOCNP. “When a patient comes to us, I understand that they have their own personal struggles and cancer has just added to that.”
Responsible for Cancer Care Plan Execution
Santiago, who went on to earn her doctorate as a nurse practitioner, is the advanced practice provider supervisor for Sylvester’s Division of Hematology and a malignant hematology nurse practitioner who supervises the care coordination of her clinics in the Leukemia Program. She makes sure the interdisciplinary plan of care is executed without a hitch, from transportation to supportive care.
“All the details are up to me, the when and where of therapy, the day-to-day,” Dr. Santiago said. “I coordinate everything for the clinic, before the visit, during the visit, and after the visit.”
This means Santiago works closely with Mikkael A. Sekeres, M.D., M.S., considered one of the world’s foremost experts on leukemia. He serves as the chief of the Division of Hematology in the Department of Medicine and physician liaison in hematology for Sylvester. Though no two workdays are alike for Dr. Santiago, she spends a good portion of her time seeing patients with Dr. Sekeres.
“It’s a lot of collaboration and making sure everyone’s on the same page and explaining what the next steps are,” she added.
Empathy for Cancer Patients
Dr. Sekeres notes that Santiago’s empathy for patients goes above and beyond the call of duty.
“She knows who they are, understands the medical and sociodemographic challenges they may face, and is able to problem-solve brilliantly as they forge a path to treatment of their cancers,” he says.
In her four years working in oncology, Santiago has learned some hard truths — not all therapies work and incurable disease remains a fact of life. She also knows that providing quality time for a patient and the patient’s family is an important part of her job.
“You have to break the bad news gently, and then you have to help them work through their grief,” Santiago said.
She also goes through her own process of letting go.
“It’s not easy, but you have to do it,” Santiago said. “You keep in mind that you may lose a patient to an incurable disease, but you have other patients and other battles to fight.”
Loss also tends to make success sweeter. One patient, a woman in her early 20s and already fighting acute leukemia, flew from out of state to receive treatment. Now in remission, she told Santiago that she decided to go to nursing school because she wants to help people.
“I like to think our work influenced her to pay it forward,” Santiago said.
The Beginnings of a Career in Health Care
Santiago was born and raised by adoptive parents. Growing up in Wynwood long before it became a chic artsy neighborhood, she admits to “a chaotic start in life.”
As the eldest child, she was charged with caring for younger siblings. She found the skills necessary to her calling when her grandmother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.
“I discovered I was a natural caretaker,” she said. “I knew I wanted a job that provided security but also a job that helped people.”
While working as a unit secretary at a hospital in her early 20s, she was impressed by the strength and work ethic of the nurses. She enrolled in nursing school to get her two-year degree while holding down a full-time job at night, and continued with a similar, punishing schedule as she earned her bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees.
After working in an ICU unit, she pivoted to oncology as a nurse practitioner at Sylvester in 2019.
“I had no social life,” she admitted with a laugh. “But I was very focused, very disciplined. I knew what I wanted and I was not going to give up.”
Those early life challenges have, in turn, benefitted the very people for whom she now cares.
“Anastasia has an indefatigable work ethic and holds herself to incredibly high standards in how she cares for patients,” said Dr. Sekeres. “I think this is born from her drive to succeed, coming from a modest upbringing, and her ability to empathize with her patients and their own origin stories.”
To cope with both her feelings and the relentless workload of oncology care, Santiago blocks out her weekends for family and fun. She’s beginning to incorporate yoga and Pilates as exercise practices, but her real “decompression” comes in reading, especially as she tries to build up her library.
“I’m an avid reader, from contemporary to classics,” she said. “I now have about 610 books, and I’m going for 1,000.”