“It’s a beautiful thing to witness…” A Talk with the Director of the VNSNY Gender Affirmation Program


In early 2016, Mt. Sinai Hospital* approached the Visiting Nurse Service of New York (VNSNY) to propose that VNSNY offer home care services to post-operative transgender patients. This was the genesis of VNSNY’s Gender Affirmation Program (known as GAP), which to date has provided home care to over 400 transgender patients.
*a strategic partner of VNSNY

DailyNurse recently interviewed Shannon Whittington, RN MSN PCC C-LGBT Health, the Clinical Director of GAP at VNSNY. We asked her about the nature of gender affirmation treatment, the home nursing care that VNSNY provides, and the outstanding LGBT-friendly services that VNSNY offers to patients across the Tri-State New York area.

DailyNurse: What is gender affirmation surgery (GAS)?

SW: A surgical procedure that creates or removes body parts that align with the patients’ gender expression. E.g. vaginoplasty, phalloplasty, metoidioplasty, facial feminization, breast augmentation/masculinization.

DN: Is this the same thing as “sex-change surgery?”

SW: It is the same thing but we don’t use the terms “sex-change surgery” anymore.

Gender Affirmation or Gender Confirming surgeries are the correct terms now.  Understanding that this is a linguistically fluid language, words and meanings are always changing and we need to be mindful of correct terminology.

DN: What are the components of the VNSNY Gender Affirmation Program?

SW: The program emphasizes home care following surgery from other providers. I train clinicians (nurses, social workers, physical therapists, home health aides, speech and occupational therapists) in cultural sensitivity as it particularly relates to transgender patients.  The training is extensive and they are also educated in how to teach the patients to care for their new or altered body parts (i.e. penis, vagina, breast, face)

DN: How did you come to specialize in the treatment of Gender Affirmation surgery patients?

SW: Fortunately, I was chosen for this project by my manager.  I had no idea what I was saying yes to but this has literally changed the trajectory of my career path.  I discovered a passion that I did not know I had!

DN: What sorts of clinical training do nurses in the program need to take care of GAS post-surgery patients?

SW: They need to know what to assess for and what is normal and what is not.  They learn about vaginal dilation because the patients who undergo vaginoplasty must do this on a regular basis. Patients come home with VACs, JP drains, foleys and supra pubic catheters. Although the nurses are already familiar with these devices, they need to teach the patients how to manage them. The clinicians are also trained in social determinants of health for this cohort.

DN: What sorts of cultural issues do nurses need to learn about before tending to a GAS patient?

SW: We really need to understand that these patients, like all of our patients, are patients first who happen to be transgender. We must respect their chosen names, their pronouns and their gender expression. We focus on getting them better and integrated back into society. It’s a beautiful thing to witness and an honor to be associated in such a transitional journey.

DN: How does the Gender Affirmation Program reflect the larger VNSNY commitment to LGBT patients?

SW: It reflects our commitment to this population on an agency wide basis.  What is great is that we are now getting non-operative transgender patients who are seeking home care services for reasons other than gender affirming surgeries.  They feel safe here and seek care outside of gender affirming surgeries.

We are initiating various ways to continue to be inclusive along the binary spectrum by hiring gender non-confirming and non-binary individuals. These individuals have a lot to offer and need to be the best expressions of themselves in their work environment just like the heteronormative society we all live in.

DN: And can you tell us something about the SAGE training in your organization?

SW: All divisions of the Visiting Nurse Service of New York have been awarded Platinum certification (the highest level possible) from SAGE, the world’s largest and oldest organization dedicated to improving the lives of LGBT older people.

More than 80 percent or more of VNSNY’s clinical and other staff have received SAGE Care LGBT cultural competency training, further establishing VNSNY as a preferred health care provider for New York City’s LGBT residents.

The SAGE training is designed to increase awareness among VNSNY clinical and administrative staff of cultural issues and sensitivities around sexual orientation and gender identification, so as to ensure a welcoming and respectful health care environment for all individuals within the LGBTQ community.

Among other things, the training stresses the importance of approaching each patient in a non-judgmental fashion and never making assumptions about anyone’s sexual orientation or family structure. We want every patient to feel they can be totally open about who they are with every member of our GAP team who walks through their door.

This article originally appeared in DailyNurse on November 21, 2019.

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