Savannah and Julissa Forte

Mother and Daughter Share Passion for Nursing

For Julissa and Savannah Forte, nursing runs in the family. The close pair love taking care of patients at City of Hope

When Savannah Forte was 5 years old and her mother was working long 12-hour days, she once looked up at her and said, “Mommy, when I grow up, I want to be a nurse too so we can go to work together and be together all day.”

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Savannah (left) and Julissa Forte share a love of nursing -- and each other. 
Julissa Forte holding her daughter Savannah
Julissa Forte holding her daughter, Savannah.


Julissa Forte gets a little emotional when she recalls the story. “And look!” she says. “The dream she had when she was 5 came true.”

Mother and daughter get to see each other quite a bit these days. Julissa, 20 years a nurse, the last eight at City of Hope, makes a point of connecting regularly — lunch, break times, the occasional Starbucks — with 22-year-old Savannah, who serves as a City of Hope patient care assistant and is headed to Baltimore this summer to attend Johns Hopkins University School of Nursing. 

The two have always been close. “We’re the Gilmore Girls,” says Savannah, referring to the early 2000s television series about a single mother and her teenaged daughter navigating life together.

So, it would be reasonable to assume that Julissa’s passion for nursing influenced Savannah’s own career decision. But it turns out, nursing was not the first choice. For either of them.

Born and raised in Los Angeles, Julissa, an only child and the daughter of working-class immigrant parents from Ecuador, knew from an early age that she wanted to do something helpful with her life, but she didn’t know what that thing would be. Her mom guided her.

“I’d say, ‘I’m bored,’” she recalled, “And Mom would say, ‘Stay busy. Go volunteer somewhere.’”

She took the advice. In high school, as she tried to “find herself,” Julissa volunteered in a chiropractor’s office, eventually rising to the level of nurse’s assistant. That’s when she began thinking about nursing as a career, encouraged by two cousins, both nurses, who pointed out, “You already know most of the job.”

“I guess I landed in the right place at the right time,” she said. “I spent three years in nursing school and fell in love with it.”

Taking a Nurse’s Role in Pediatric Oncology

Not that it was easy. For her first full-time job, Julissa landed in the last place she expected: pediatric oncology. 

It was overwhelming at first. “I wasn’t a mom yet. I didn’t know anything about caring for children,” she said. But she did know how to connect with the mothers, many of whom were Latinas like herself. She learned a lot from them and grew to love her department, where she specialized in helping teenaged boys with leukemia. She stayed for 12 years.

A nurse colleague and mentor in that first job would prove to be a lifelong friend. And when Paula Ybarra, R.N., moved on to City of Hope, she encouraged Julissa to follow. 

“We’d first met when Savannah was in Julissa’s belly,” said Ybarra, smiling. She knew Julissa would thrive at City of Hope. “She has such a positive, calm way about her. She’s a fantastic nurse, very smart, with lots of common sense. And she would do anything for her patients.”

The first six months were tough. Julissa, newly divorced and co-parenting Savannah and her brother Kenny, would stay with Ybarra while doing her three days of 12-hour shifts, once again in pediatric oncology, then go home to be with her kids. “I cried a lot,” she recalls. “I was mentally exhausted. But I learned so much about pediatric cancer, and I really appreciated my own, healthy kids.”

Savannah, meantime, was thinking about anything but nursing. That wish, back when she was little, to be like Mommy was really just a desire to spend more time with Julissa. In fact, when Mom described for her daughter exactly what a nurse does, Savannah, who would fuss and squirm whenever she received a shot or vaccination, explicitly remembers thinking, “Ew, I don’t want to do that!”

For the younger Forte, science and research held the most appeal. Enrolling at UC Davis, Savannah seriously considered clinical psychology until, in something of an “aha!” moment, she realized she wanted to work in a profession healing the body as well as the mind. She decided that becoming a nurse practitioner would give her the patient contact she wanted plus opportunities to indulge her passion for research in such areas as the gut microbiome, a particular interest.

Working as a Patient Care Assistant Before Nursing School

About a year ago, Julissa told Savannah about an opening at City of Hope for a patient care assistant. Although working as a PCA isn’t required before nursing school, Savannah saw it as a way to get a close-up view of the nursing profession and gain important real-world experience. She took the eight-week certification course and got the job. And she loves it.

Julissa and Savannah Forte working together at City of Hope
Julissa and Savannah Forte working together at City of Hope.

“We help with a patient’s daily tasks,” she explained, “shaving, bathing, eating, taking vitals every four hours, ordering meals, collaborating with the nurses, filling doctors’ orders.” 

She also provides a compassionate human touch that patients deeply appreciate.

“We had one patient, about my age, in the hospital for several months,” she recalled. “Her family visited, but no friends came. I noticed she’d taken a liking to me, so I made a point of sharing gossip with her, getting her Valentine’s Day chocolates. We formed a close connection, and it made her feel seen.”

Though she “floats” among several departments, Savannah is based in familiar territory: She’s assigned to pediatric oncology, right where her mother worked for so many years. Co-workers who know Julissa call Savannah “mini-me” and have embraced her as a member of the team.

Sadly though, Julissa no longer works there. She has switched to an outpatient department, helping adults. It was a necessary change brought on by a personal tragedy.

Not long after turning 18, Savannah’s younger brother Kenny was killed in a car crash. The accident hit the family hard, and Julissa found it emotionally impossible to continue working with critically ill teenage boys.

Savannah handled the trauma by persevering, refusing to take time off, working hard and impressing everyone around her. 

A Special Bond With Patients

“Patients love her,” said Ybarra. “I love the woman she’s become. She’s so logical and analytical. She’s going to be an incredibly compassionate nurse. I can see her working in supportive care.”

Plus, they’ve found a way to work together. Mother and daughter have received a City of Hope Kindness Grant to run a monthly blood pressure screening program at a local senior center. It’s one more example of the Forte tradition of giving back. “It’s in our blood,” Julissa says. Even when both kids were little, Mom would bring them to work, to clean up the pediatric toy room or participate in the annual Bone Marrow Transplant Reunion. “I’ve always had my kids with me,” Julissa says.

“I’m a proud mom!”