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Alumni Profile: Heather Wensley Advocates for Adolescent Health Through Pediatric NP Role

  By Gianluca D'Elia
  Tuesday, July 9, 2024

Heather Wensley wearing blue and gold doctoral graduation regalia, standing on a stage and smiling.

Heather Wensley ’11N (MS) ’24N (DNP) grew up with a mother who worked as a surgical technician, often loving to tag along on weekends when she was paged for emergencies. She remembers sitting by the TV in the physician’s lounge of their small Pennsylvania town’s hospital, watching health care workers rush by the doorway, off to scrub into life-saving surgeries.

Those early memories helped Wensley discover her dream of becoming a provider, though she wasn’t sure if that would lead her to nursing or medical school at first.

“I could see the dedication that they had to their patients, and from an early age, I knew that I wanted to get into health care,” she recalled. “I wanted to make an impact on somebody and their family like that.”

Choosing a bachelor’s in nursing paid off in the long term, she said: understanding the work of a registered nurse and spending time with patients at the bedside in their most vulnerable moments ultimately helped Wensley become a better pediatric nurse practitioner.

After earning her master’s in 2011, she discovered her passion for working with adolescents through her role as a high school NP in the Rochester City School District. 

“I love their spirit and energy. They have a lot to offer the world, and they have a vision for what they want the world to be like for themselves and the next generation,” she said.

Amy Realbuto, Meredith Kells, and Heather Wensley pose for a photo together at the 2024 Society for Adolescent Health and Medicine conference.
Amy Realbuto, Meredith Kells, and Heather Wensley pose for a photo together at the Society for Adolescent Health and Medicine's Annual Meeting in Spring 2024.

Wensley later joined the Adolescent Medicine team at Golisano Children’s Hospital (GCH) in 2020, specializing in gender health and eating disorders. Alongside fellow alumna Amy Realbuto ’06N (MS), she serves as a leader on an interdisciplinary team where NPs are empowered to practice at their full scope and “walk alongside our physician colleagues,” she said.

“Our adolescent medicine team is amazing, and what makes it so special is the respect and collaboration we all have with each other. We all continuously learn from each other and recognize the unique expertise that we all have. Everyone is vital to the care we provide."

She shared her gratitude for Susan Michelle Yussman, MD, MPH, chief of the Adolescent Medicine division at URMC, for empowering NPs to expand their roles while also prioritizing their wellness.

Wensley also credits the School of Nursing’s inaugural dean Loretta C. Ford, EdD, RN, PNP, FAAN, FAANP, co-founder of the nurse practitioner role, as one of her greatest inspirations to “push the envelope,” find new ways to reduce health disparities, and maximize the impact of her NP position — and that shows in the work she has done throughout her NP career.

Exemplifying nurses’ holistic approach to patient care, she created GCH’s first peer support group for parents of transgender and gender-nonconforming youth as her Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) scholarly project, which she successfully defended in the Spring 2024 semester. Trained to consider biological, social, and other factors that affect a patient’s health, Wensley recognized that the entire family unit is an integral part of teenagers’ development and wellness.

“I believe that people and parents are doing the best they can with the resources they have available. Parents love their children,: she said. “Sometimes they just need somebody to talk to and to talk some of these thoughts and feelings through."

Research shows that parental support is associated with higher quality of life and protection against depression for transgender youth. The peer support group seeks to help parents better support, understand, and care for their children.

“It has been really special to be a part of it,” Wensley said of the group. “Seeing people connecting with a stranger who has walked through some of the same things that they're going through helps them know they're not alone. To hear others’ success stories, and that everything is going to be OK, is really helpful for parents to hear throughout their child’s journey.”

Recently, she has been working with Assistant Professor of Nursing Meredith Kells, PhD, RN, CPNP, FSAHM, to develop an eating disorder (ED) screening tool to introduce at local school districts. She hopes it will address some pressing issues in ED care: they’re starting to develop among children ages 9 to 11 more frequently, and across all age groups, youth of color at risk for EDs are more likely to go undiagnosed.

“To begin to eliminate implicit bias in screenings and eliminate these disparities, we hope to develop standardized ED risk screening tools for younger children, working with both city and suburban schools to ensure all children receive the care they need,” she said.

Being an advocate beyond the Medical Center campus is an equally important part of her role as bedside care.

“The work we do is important within the walls of the clinic, but it's also important out in the community, which is one of the reasons why I love adolescent medicine,” she said.

The specialty has a uniquely broad reach into adolescents’ lives, with nurses working not only in traditional clinical environments but in schools and community agencies as well.

“Some of the days can be heavy, and you just feel for these patients and these families so much,” she said. “But patients really can get better, and when they do, it's all worth it. It’s a gift to be able to sit alongside people in hard moments in their lives, and to be able to do this work.”


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Categories: DNP, Nurse Practitioner Programs, Alumni

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