Helping Change Lives for the Better
By Cynthia Robinson
Photography by Mike Force Photography
Darien native Amy Pontello, ARNP, has just two things on her ultimate wish list: “One, that there would be less stigma surrounding mental health issues; Two, more access to mental health care. Really, less stigma would automatically equal more access for some people,” said Amy, a psychiatric nurse practitioner at Coastal Community Health Services (CCHS).
Although Amy has been a nurse since the 1980s, she didn’t transition into psychiatric nursing until about three years ago. “I started out as an R.N. at the hospital in Brunswick.” She and her husband, Bob, then spent 15 years living in Florida, finally settling in Key West, where she transitioned into oncology nursing.
“I loved oncology nursing and primarily worked with populations who were not usually served in the primary care world. Believe it or not, transitioning from oncology to psychiatry was not such a stretch,” she said. “I was taking care of a lot of anxiety and depression with oncology patients and their families.”
Although she and her husband love Key West and the waterfront home they still own there, they had a big incentive to return to Darien. “We came back because of my first grandbaby!” Amy said, with a laugh, referring to Ruby Jean who is now 4 years old.
The move also opened the opportunity to switch to psychiatric nursing. “I came here and spoke to the Shivers (Psychiatrists Dr. William Shivers and Dr. Marlene Zeitzer Shivers) about the job, and they said they would love to have me as part of their crew. When I told my husband, he said, ‘I can’t believe they’re going to pay you to talk to people. Amy, you talk to people in elevators!’” she said, laughing again. “It’s worked very well for me. I enjoy talking to people and hearing their stories and about their lives. Along the way we help each other. It is an awesome job.”
In her current role Amy works with adult patients with mental health and/or substance abuse issues. “I usually see 20 to 25 patients a day in our Shoppers Way office and see several more at the crisis unit at Gateway Behavioral Services.
“What I like most about my job is that when people come to our offices, they are looking for help and open to making a change in their lives, whether it’s medication, counseling, or other programs. We make a difference. We have people who can function and be part of life again and be part of their families again.”
Although Amy and her colleagues saw many patients prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, “we’re seeing more documented cases of depression, anxiety, and we already had a large population of substance abuse, ” Amy said. “When the pandemic hit, a lot of support systems went by the wayside.” She added she and her colleagues are there for anyone needing mental health services, regardless of their ability to pay. “We are open to everyone— for the insured, the uninsured, the employed and unemployed. We don’t care. Come on down.”
Amy knew she had found her calling and a supportive work community as soon as she began working at CCHS. “I was lucky to fall into a group of about 20 nurse practitioners, including Sherri Kroll (a “brainchild”) and Heather Hipchen. They are fantastic.” This special group provides mental health services to the southern part of the state, “from the coast to middle Georgia, over to Waycross and Valdosta, up into Chatham and down in Camden. Ours is a specialty provider niche in nursing, which traditionally has shortages. We even cover an area in the Georgia mountains,” she added.
“I’m also on the Board of Health in McIntosh County. It is amazing to me to see the lack of mental health services across the country.” She added, sadly, some mental health patients experiencing a crisis can end up in jail because “the world doesn’t know what to do with them.” Amy is an advocate for expanding mental health services, which she said are as important as medical services for physical conditions and ailments.
Other challenges Amy finds in her work: Not all insurances cover mental health services, as well as getting people past stigmas to seek the help they need. “Probably the most challenging part of my job is patients who need mental health services but are not willing to come back. We have to convince them. ‘Yes, we really can help you.’ Another challenge is meds because some psychiatric medications can be expensive.”
Another passion for Amy is her church, St. Andrews Episcopal in Darien. She is working on her ordination as a deacon in the Episcopal Church, a calling that falls into place with her commitment to caring for others. “My faith is what keeps me grounded, and being a deacon is all about service,” said Amy, “I’m pretty darn close to becoming a deacon, but with the pandemic, I just don’t know. It will happen when God says it’s time.”
While her church is still closed to in-person services, the crisis has brought out the best in her faith community. “While we are still online only, I think our outreach has doubled, or even tripled. I think it has made people more caring.”
Regardless of how long the pandemic lasts, Amy is dedicated to serving the community through her nursing and church work right here in the Golden Isles. And, while they visit Key West often, “we’ll probably stay in Darien. My mom, grandbaby and two of our children are here, and the other two are an easy drive away. My job is so rewarding, because you can really make a change in someone’s life for the better. Mental health and mental issues carry a big stigma, and that’s a bad thing. There is help for everybody.”
Education: Bachelor’s and Master’s in nursing from Armstrong Atlantic University (now Georgia Southern University Armstrong Campus) and currently pursuing doctorate in nursing at the University of North Florida.
Favorite Things: “I love playing in the water, especially in Key West.” She also enjoys antiquing. “My brother has Broad Street Antiques in Darien. Cooking is also a passion; my husband is VERY Italian, so we make a lot of sauce and pasta!”
Help Available: “If you need emergency help; you can call a crisis line any time
and get a real person. You can also find help at an ER.” The Georgia Access & Crisis Line is 1-800-715-4225 or visit, www.mygcal.com.