2023 APNA Award for Excellence in Practice – RN
Maj. Francis “Frank” Ugoh, RN
Nominated by Lt. Col. Renel Ramos
Frank Ugoh practices psychiatric-mental health nursing on a global scale. He muses, “instead of taking care of a small group of patients, I get to take care of the mental health of people all across the world.”
Born in a small village in Nigeria, Frank moved to Russia as an adult. His career in healthcare began by treating animals, having earned a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine. After being awarded a Visa to work in America from the U.S. Diversity Visa Lottery Program, Frank secured a job at the Philadelphia Mental Health Center (PMHC) where he worked with young people experiencing mental health disorders and became aware that he preferred working to help people rather than animals.
Frank pursued his PMH nursing education at the Goldfarb School of Nursing in Missouri. Professors saw a special spark in Frank, and upon graduation, connected him to a position in the psychiatric unit of the Washington University Medical Center (WUMC) in St. Louis – where he became their first nursing school graduate to go straight from graduation to a PMH nursing position.
Following two rewarding years working at WUMC, Frank was inspired by a military recruiter and decided to bring his training to help those serving in the Air Force. Because of his prior PMH nursing experience, Frank began taking care of patients in an inpatient, military psychiatric unit.
“It was a blessing,” Frank confides. “I went from taking care of 4 to 5 hospitalized patients to doing something completely different. The same important care, but in a very different form.”
As a PMH nurse in the Air Force, Frank advocated for the importance of mental health care within Global Health Engagement (GHE) efforts. He was the first PMH nurse appointed to the GHE effort and his work resulted in policy changes that allowed PMH nurses to complete mental health readiness assessments for airmen prior to deployment – a role previously only performed by APRNs and MDs.
While he was stationed at Elgin Air Force Base in Florida, the base lost its only psychiatrist position. Frank stepped forward into the role of psychiatric case manager where he was empowered by the Flight Commander to launch a PMH telehealth program, expanding their capability to perform mental health assessments. Frank conducted more than 2,100 mental health assessments to assure airmen were mentally fit for deployment. This program is still running with a much larger staff, trained by Frank.
Frank successfully standardized the peer review process for mental health case managers and partnered with U.S. Allied military and defense planners to expand the United Nation’s global health security strategic objectives. He also expanded services to patients outside of the medical facility – meeting service members in their units and offering training in stress management and crisis de-escalation.
Frank underscores the importance of reducing stigma around mental health care among those serving in the military:
“It’s important they understand mental health care will not impact their career. It will instead help them continue their military career. Coming for mental health care makes you strong.”
A champion of the Air Force Substance Use Program, Frank worked to address the needs of substance use patients and advocate for early alcohol withdrawal screenings, alcohol withdrawal prevention plans, and ensuring airmen experienced a continuous process for this specialized care.
“To successfully work in mental health care, you need a deep spirit of caring within. If you don’t find joy in what you do, patients will sense it. With a spirit of caring, patients will see you are truly caring for them and you will find more fulfillment in your work.”
Today, Frank serves an International Health Specialist (IHS) for the United States Surgeon General for Europe, the first PMH nurse to serve in this capacity. Frank provides psychiatric care not just to service men and women in Europe and Africa, but also to U.S. partners and allies as well. In addition, he advises the Combatant Commands’ lines of effort taking into consideration the doctrines of global health engagement included in North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) goals. Because he speaks several languages, Frank is a significant asset to his mission.
Frank’s work has crossed many borders. In Rwanda, he helped build the relationship between the U.S. and a foreign partner, performing PMH evaluations alongside the partner nation’s team. In South Africa, he educated service members about the impact of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and the importance of mental health capacity in the military.
Frank is currently nearing the completion of a PMH-NP program, which will propel him into a different Global Health Engagement Unit and expand the work he can do.
Happy to be improving the lives of so many across the globe, Frank’s ultimate goal is to make a difference right where he started. “My goal and dream has always been to help others. While I am doing that now in the military, in my lifetime I hope to bring that dream home to help the people of my village by developing homes for those orphaned and widowed living there.”