by Joseph Pimentel/Asianjournal.com
LAS VEGAS, NV — Filipino American Belen Gabato became the first Filipina nurse to ever be appointed by the Governors Office in the State of Nevada as a member of the Nevada Board of Nursing. She is also the first Asian to get the post.
Nevada Governor Jim Gibbons will induct Gabato officially to the Nevada Board of Nursing at a special ceremony in Las Vegas on December 14.
Originally from Cebu City, Gabato said that this is the culmination of a career that started more than 40 years ago. And to think, when she moved to Las Vegas with her husband, Dr. Manuel Gabato in the 1990’s, she wanted to pursue a different profession.
“I wanted to be a showgirl,” Gabato joked in a recent interview with the Asian Journal.
Seriously, Gabato said “I’m thankful for Governor Gibbons for recognizing that and believing in diversity. It’s important to have different points of views and reflect the constituents of the community where we have a diverse population.”
“I think [her appointment is] long overdue,” added her husband Dr. Manuel Gabato. “There are so many Filipino nurses in Nevada, they should be represented by one of their own.”
Gabato has been a nurse advocate and leader since her days in Cebu City, Philippines. She studied at the Southern Island Hospital school of Nursing and received her Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) from the Southwestern University in Cebu City. In college, her peers voted her president of the student council. When she took her Philippine board of nursing exam, Gabato placed fifth in the whole country.
“She’s always been a very smart woman,” said Dr. Manuel.
In 1964, she went to the US under an exchange visitors program. She relocated and became a nurse at a hospital in Chicago, Illinois. While in Chicago, she continued her studies teaching at St. Mary of Nazareth Hospital and pursued a graduate degree.
Once her husband, finished his training as a doctor at Cook County Hospital, they moved to Indiana and started a private practice.
“It was small townish,” she said about living in Indiana. “You knew everybody, you saw everybody, and you knew all the teachers. I liked it but my husband got tired of the winter weather.”
In 1990 the couple moved to Las Vegas and began another medical practice. Gabato ran the office learning about insurance, Medicare, HMO and Medicaid.
Nursing, however, continued to be part of her life.
In the early 90’s, she along with four of her friends founded the Philippine Nurses Association of Las Vegas.
She admitted that starting an organization from the ground up was difficult.
“Nobody joined,” she said. “Naturally, everyone wanted to know why they should join. I told them that, ‘if they joined that I’d give them a pencil,’ I’d be lying. But I told them [nurses] that there might be issues in the future that they might be concerned with and need to pay attention to.”
Gabato said nothing happened for two years.
Then in 1993, a nursing bill floated around the Nevada State Congress. The bill would have allowed Canadian nurses the ability to be a nurse in Nevada without having to take the state’s licensing exam to practice nursing.
“We thought this was unfair,” she recalls.
Gabato said that members of the Philippine Nurses Association started a petition, rallying other nurses who opposed the bill. They began to work with the State’s Board of Nursing and other Nevada Nurses organizations. Gabato also wrote a position paper and testified in front of the Nevada State Congress against the bill.
“They [the state legislators] killed it,” she said proudly. “We didn’t say that they [Canadian nurses] couldn’t come [practice nursing in Nevada] that just they have to take the test like everyone else.”
This was the first of many victories. Not only was it significant because the Philippine Nurses Association helped defeat the bill but also State politicians recognized that the organization had political clout.
Gabato said, “That got the ball rolling. Now through the years, we’ve partnered with the Board of Nursing, appeared before them, supported or not supported them depending on the issues.”
She said that the Philippine Nurses Association of Las Vegas boasts more than 400 members. The organization is also aligned with the larger nationwide Philippine Nurses Association of America to continue to promote professional excellence and contribute to significant outcomes to healthcare and society.
As one of the seven members of the Nevada State Board of Nursing, Gabato has a large task ahead. She will be part of the governing board that is responsible for protecting the public’s health, safety and welfare through effective nursing regulation.
“The Board’s mission is to insure the public gets safe, effective quality care. It’s not to protect nurses or doctors,” she said. “It’s not a board for nurses. We are here for the public. We have to uphold regulations, and disciplinary actions. We have to make sure that nurses know what they are doing and the public will get the care they deserve.”
“There is an increased responsibility because it deals with people’s careers, reputation, the public rights for safe care,” she added. “ I have to make sure that I look at all the angles of a situation and be fair, objective and responsive.”
One key issue that she continues to fight for is the State’s nurse to patient ratio.
Nevada ranks last in the nation in the number of nurses per 100,000 people. A 2005 Medical Education Council of Nevada (MECON) University of Nevada School of Medicine study revealed that there are 548 licensed Registered Nurses (RN’s) per 100,000 people in the state of Nevada. The number is way below the national average of 782 per 100,000 people.
“We [Nevada] still don’t have a nurse to patient ratio,” she said. “We have tried to work on a nurse/ patient ratio bill to pattern ourselves from California for a couple years now [but] our bill has never made it out of committee.”
“That’s a bill that we will continue to support and again bring to the State legislators,” she added.
Gabato said that she’s taking her role as a member of the board very seriously. She knows that her leadership is being counted on not only by the community for better healthcare but other Filipino nurses who look up to her.
“There are so many of us now,” she said. “I hope this [my appointment] will continue to open the doors for other Filipino nurses to be considered for this Board or other positions of political power. This could break the glass ceiling for us.”