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Alumni Profile: Melisande Ploutz Finds Her Niche as National Advocate in Cleft & Craniofacial Care

  By Gianluca D'Elia
  Friday, July 21, 2023

Mel Ploutz and two summer camp participants wear matching pink shirts with the quote "Let your smile change the world" in yellow letters.

The first time Melisande Ploutz ’13N (MS) took care of a patient with cleft palate, she was working as a registered nurse in Golisano Children’s Hospital’s (GCH) pediatric surgical suite and pursuing her master’s as a pediatric nurse practitioner at the University of Rochester. She realized quickly that cleft and craniofacial care was a specialty area she wanted to stay in.

A decade after joining GCH’s Cleft and Craniofacial Center as its nurse practitioner and team leader, Ploutz is now being recognized at a national level for her leadership and expertise. At the beginning of 2023, she started a three-year term as the only nurse on the American Cleft Palate-Craniofacial Association’s (ACPA) board of directors.

“This is a very big goal achieved for me,” said Ploutz, who had previously served as chair of the ACPA’s Care Coordination special interest group.

Ploutz has known since her first year as a bachelor’s of nursing student at Case Western Reserve University that working with children was her dream. Originally from Geneva, New York, she returned to the region after college to work at GCH, first in the pediatric intensive care unit, and later, the pediatric surgical suite.

Building relationships with patients and families affirmed Ploutz’s instinct to pursue a career in pediatric nursing. In her current role, she has a unique opportunity to be part of her patients’ lives both before they are born and throughout their childhoods. The first babies she treated as a nurse practitioner are now turning 10 and 11 years old.

Mel Ploutz headshot

“This is the type of specialty where the patients become family,” Ploutz said. “I meet moms and families when they’re expecting babies and get some abnormalities in the ultrasound. I provide that initial contact and reassurance that no matter what their child is born with, we are going to be able to take care of them, they are in great hands, and we know how to handle it.”

Children with cleft and craniofacial differences might see as many as nine specialists in a two-hour visit. Utilizing their combined expertise, the team comes together to conference on patients and create individualized treatment plans for each child they see. After earning her master’s degree from the University of Rochester, Ploutz said she gained the knowledge and confidence to practice autonomously and lead the interdisciplinary team of surgeons, dentists, psychologists, speech-language pathologists, and other specialists to provide the best care.

Throughout her career at GCH, Ploutz has been passionate about pursuing professional development opportunities. She often encourages newer colleagues to work with their administrators and attendings to set aside administrative time for joining organizations, getting involved in special interest groups, going to conferences, and pursuing continuing education opportunities.

Former Associate Dean of Education and Student Affairs Pamela A. Herendeen, ’09N (DNP), PNP-BC, a senior nurse practitioner at GCH, recognized Ploutz’s leadership skills and sense of curiosity early on in her graduate education.

“Mel is a strong patient and family advocate,” Herendeen said. “As a student, she was a curious, smart, and engaged learner who set high goals for herself.”

Ploutz’s eagerness to grow as a leader and continue her education has not only been beneficial to herself and her team, but to patients and families, too. In addition to her work with the ACPA, Ploutz completed a lactation counselor training course through the Healthy Children Project’s Center for Breastfeeding in 2021. A mother of two, she was interested in learning more about lactation support, and sought to incorporate it into her clinical practice.

Melisande Ploutz '13N attended the ACPA conference in May, and presented on breastfeeding for parents of children with cleft and craniofacial conditions.

“Any baby with a medical problem can benefit from breast milk and breastfeeding. In my specialty area, it’s tricky, because many babies with facial anomalies might not be able to feed at the breast,” she explained.

She offers counseling on pumping for parents when a baby’s facial anomalies prevent them from breastfeeding, and supports them in getting a breast pump, learning how to use it, and creating a schedule. She also supports parents’ transition to breastfeeding when babies are able to do so.

It’s an area of cleft and craniofacial care that is often overlooked, but Ploutz hopes to change that, and aims to inspire other nurses to pursue the certification she received. At the ACPA’s annual conference in May, she spoke at a session for nurses with the presentation “A Beginner’s Guide to Lactation Counseling: Educating and Empowering Families of Newborns with Clefts about the Benefits of Breast Milk.”

Since she became a certified lactation counselor, Ploutz said she has seen an uptick in breast milk production and breastfeeding among families the GCH Cleft and Craniofacial Center sees.

Her leadership experience has empowered her to step out of her daily clinical setting and into the world to advocate for individuals with cleft and craniofacial differences. She currently travels around the region to present to fellow nurses, pediatrician’s offices, and elementary school classes.

“I have the most fulfilling, amazing job in the world, and I’m very lucky,” she said. “I love to educate, do community outreach and advocate for our population, because they are special people.”

This story appeared in the Summer 2023 issue of NURSING Magazine.

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Categories: Nurse Practitioner Programs, Alumni

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