Laura Santoro | Jaime Angio~For Sun-Times Media
Updated: January 7, 2013 6:02AM
Laura Santoro started practicing to be a nurse when she was 9 years old.
Her grandmother was a noncompliant diabetic — one who doesn’t follow doctors’ recommendations — and she was in and out of hospitals. Santoro would ask nurses caring for her grandmother to show her how to do things.
More than 30 years later, Santoro, 41, of Frankfort, has been recognized by the Illinois HealthCare Association and the Long Term Care Nurses Association as the 2012 Nurse of the Year. She is a registered nurse at Alden Estates of Orland Park.
“It brought me to tears,” Santoro said of the award. “I was shocked. And I thought, ‘This is what I’ve been doing for the past 22 years, and finally somebody saw where my heart and mind is, which is working here and taking care of our people.’
“So many times, long-term care gets such a bad rap, and I’m so honored that this is such a positive thing in the community.”
Santoro works with patients with the most complex medical situations at Alden Estates of Orland Park, a rehabilitation center for both short- and long-term patients. Administrator Katie Maniatis nominated Santoro for the award.
“We have great nurses,” Maniatis said. “Something that sets Laura apart from what we are looking for when we want to nominate somebody is, ‘Can they be a great nurse, do all of the things that nurses need to do and have compassion while they do it?’ ”
Santoro discovered early that nursing is compassion. While growing up in Chicago, she often looked after her disabled brother.
“My brother had special needs; he was hearing-impaired and learning-disabled, went through the special-education system. I taught him to read, I taught him work phonics,” Santoro said.
Santoro also cared for her grandmother.
“My grandma got sick when I was about 9, and we started taking care of her,” she said. “She was a noncompliant diabetic with wounds, and she had her leg amputated. So I was 10 years old, and we would bathe our grandma and change the bed sores, change the surgical wounds after the amputation. ... The nurses at UIC were so good to us, and I would be like, ‘OK, show me how.’ ”
Santoro started to “learn” the nursing craft by enrolling in the Licensed Practical Nurse program at Bogan High School on the Southwest Side. The school offered certification through a division of the Chicago Practical Nursing Program.
“My grandma lost her battle with diabetes when I was pregnant with my son at 17,” Santoro said. “And that’s when I realized how real life is, and we have a short time, and we never know when it’s going to be, so you have to do what you can.
“I started (nursing) as a junior in high school and finished my senior year,” she said. “My mom said, ‘If you don’t like it, do it until you figure out what you want to do.’ And I fell in love with nursing by the first semester.”
Santoro graduated from Bogan in 1989. She earned her associate’s degree in nursing from Joliet Junior College in 2000. She and her husband, Niall, have five children between them.
Santoro has “seen it all” in nursing, working in hospitals, hospice and nursing homes.
“I’ve taken care of everything from gangbangers to grannies,” Santoro said. “I used to help women give birth. They were handcuffed to beds.”
But Alden Estates of Orland Park is where Santoro would like to stay. She said she loves her job and loves to see people recover.
“I love patient interaction,” she said. “And seeing people go home better than what they came in ... Working in hospice, they get the ultimate discharge to heaven. And we don’t see that too much. This is good. I see people walk out of here.”
She said nursing is about following one’s calling in life.
“Nobody just becomes a nurse,” Santoro said. “You are led. You are nurtured. And I was nurtured by some very good nurses.
“I just really hope that more people go into nursing because it has to be in their heart and not think about the paycheck,” she said. “Because as a nurse, you’re never going to be rich, you’re never going to be really famous. You’re going to work every other weekend and every other holiday. You’re going to work an off shift, and you know you have to give yourself.
“I have a purpose,” she said. “Nursing ... It’s fed my kids, (provided) health insurance, roof over my head. I was a single mom (at one point); if it wasn’t for nursing, where would I be? It’s been wonderful to me.”