June 18, 2021
Nani Cuadrado Provides Care for the Homeless and Victims of Sex Trafficking
May 26, 2021
By Sarah Blugis
As a single mother raising two young children, Ho’onani (Nani) Cuadrado, MSPAS, PA-C, AAPA’s 2021 PA of the Year, found herself looking for a career that would allow her to balance her children and her passion for medicine. Working as an EMT-Intermediate, her colleagues urged her to pursue her dream of a medical career beyond pre-hospital care.
Her father, then a cardiothoracic surgeon, suggested she become a PA. In 2000, she was accepted into the DeSales University PA program, located just 10 miles from her parents’ home in Allentown, Pennsylvania. Cuadrado was inspired to dedicate her career to the underserved partly by her parents, who had dedicated their own lives to serving others. Her mother was a pillar at their local church, while her father was a volunteer surgeon for Doctors Without Borders.
Since becoming a PA, Cuadrado has made it her mission to serve her community’s most vulnerable patients: persons experiencing homelessness and victims of sex trafficking. Serving these patients, she says, is heartbreaking work.
“The persons who have been marginalized and suffered unspeakable trauma have become my greatest teachers,” Cuadrado says. Her patients have allowed her into their lives “through losses, celebrations, laughter, tears, and hugs.”
The PA of the Year Award honors PAs who demonstrate exemplary service to the community; exemplify the PA profession’s philosophy of providing accessible, quality healthcare to all; and further the image of the profession in a positive, meaningful way.
Cuadrado’s work with underserved communities began 18 years ago, while she was practicing as an emergency medicine PA at Lehigh Valley Health Network. She spent much of her free time abroad serving in remote areas of El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras, Guatemala, Mexico, Nicaragua, Peru, Tanzania, Uganda, and Zambia.
In 2011, she began to volunteer as a preceptor for PA students who were running a free clinic at a local men’s homeless shelter. Through this experience, Cuadrado realized the prevalence of homelessness and its close relationship to human trafficking within her own community.
So, Cuadrado spearheaded efforts to provide free healthcare to a local residential home for sex-trafficked women. Later on, she launched a PA team at a local refugee resettlement site to provide healthcare for unaccompanied minors primarily from Central America, many of whom were victims of human trafficking or exploitation.
Currently, Cuadrado is the program director for a medical practice called Valley Health Partners Street Medicine working in partnership with Lehigh Valley Health Network in Pennsylvania. Carrying a 40-pound backpack filled with medications and life essentials, Cuadrado and her team conduct “street rounds,” providing care to homeless individuals, free of charge. They conduct rounds no matter the weather and, after snowstorms, have even shoveled out homeless camps to reach patients.
“Our small but incredibly mighty team provides primary care to persons experiencing homelessness in our community where they feel most comfortable – under bridges, in the streets, in the woods of their encampment, in soup kitchens, or shelters,” Cuadrado says. “We address not only their medical needs but look at ways to ways to provide holistic care – attending to social needs and helping patients to surmount barriers to healthcare access.”
Cuadrado’s colleagues describe her as dedicated and committed to unyielding service – a provider of compassionate care to “every wound, illness, or complaint.” She is also a passionate advocate for her patients and has worked to raise awareness of the close relationship of homelessness to human trafficking. Cuadrado has worked to educate her hospital network and her community about trafficking, as well as helping to establish a protocol for identification and care of local victims to be implemented in early 2022.
Cuadrado is a member and supporter of Valley Against Sex Trafficking. In 2019, she was asked to serve on an expert work group for the Department of Health and Human Services, Office of the Assistant Secretary for Health, and the Office of Population Affairs to review the intersection of human trafficking and family planning services. Cuadrado has also been a TEDx speaker, challenging communities to redefine their success by how they care for the homeless, and was a moderator for an Emmy-awarded PBS documentary about local survivors of sex trafficking.
As a practicing PA for the last 18 years, Cuadrado is a strong believer in the strength of the PA profession which, she says, is centered around relationship building with patients and the ability to practice patient-led care. She also stresses the important of teamwork and coming together to achieve more.
“This award causes me to reflect back on PA colleagues who have been unsung heroes in my life – those who have quietly influenced by work and gently shaped my rough edges,” Cuadrado says. “Most importantly, this award is born out of the efforts of a street medicine team that works tirelessly to be patient-led and puts others, including their teammates, ahead of themselves.”