INDUSTRY
June 19, 2020

This Juneteenth, 4 Nurses Share Their Stories & Solutions For a Better Future

Four black nurses in work attire

Juneteenth is an annual holiday celebrating the emancipation of enslaved people in the U.S. Also known as Freedom Day and Jubilee Day, the holiday lands on June 19th. And while President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863 the news did not make it to Galveston, Texas for two years on June 19, 1865. 

Juneteenth 2020 is celebrated amid protests against police brutality, and a movement toward anti-racism and the checking of white privilege. In these times it might feel difficult to celebrate. But, as we take some time today to acknowledge the atrocities of slavery, it’s important to celebrate the advancements of the black community. 

Read on as we highlight 4 exceptional black nurses who have accomplished so much despite the racial disparities and challenges they have faced throughout their careers in the medical field. We had open and honest conversations about racism in nursing and gathered strategies and solutions to work toward a better future. 

Alice Benjamin, MSN, APRN, ACNS-BC, FNP- @asknursealice

Woman african american nurse in white lab coat

PW: How long have you been a nurse, and what's your specialty?

AB: I've been a nurse for over 23 years. My clinical specialties are critical care and emergency medicine. I'm also:

  • A media health expert on national TV
  • CEO/founder of a health, wellness, and safety company named I Am Nurse Approved 

PW: Share your experience with racism in nursing or with racism in your everyday life.

AB: As a nurse, I've had to endure racism by patients and still take care of them. In critical care and emergency medicine, there isn't the luxury of refusing to care for a patient, especially in critical and life-saving moments. It's a deep pain to have to continuously be professional, pleasant, and do what's right despite the several racial slurs, insults, and injustices over the years. All of this is without any support, apology, or protection from hospital leadership. Nursing is one of the very few professions where one still must take care of people who don't care about you, and that is a deep hurt. There is no room for racism in today's society and especially in patient care, where it can cause death at the hands of those trusted with saving lives.

PW: As a black nurse, how are you dealing with everything going on in our community and then having to go to work and cope or suppress your feelings? 

AB: My emotions are on a roller coaster. I "think" I'm handling it well. However, I'm probably --as well as several millions of other people-- traumatized not only by the images of George Floyd, and the hundreds of other senseless deaths of black people, but at seeing how colleagues and companies I once supported show a lack of empathy or concern. Their silence, to me, is complicity. 

PW: How is your mental health/how are you coping?

AB: I've started to meditate more, pray more, and find peaceful activities like gardening to rest my heart and soul in such heavy and sad times. And even still, that isn't enough. There are times when I break down in tears because I can't believe how racist some people are, and how some people I thought weren't racist actually share many racists' beliefs and even support it with their silence.

PW: What can healthcare workers do about social injustice? 

AB: Nurse Haskins and I talked about this in our last episode of "Beyond the Bedside," a weekly IG Live that occurs every Tuesday at 6 pm PT/9 pm ET. Some of the recommendations we had were: 

  1. Speak up so people can hear your stories of racism, so they know that it still exists.
  2. Listen to others to learn even if it's uncomfortable to hear - you can't find solutions or middle ground to a problem you don't fully understand. 
  3. Register to vote so you can get the right legislators in your local, state, and national offices who are for the people. This is the only way to remove people who still allow injustices and ignorance today.
  4. Get involved with a professional nursing organization by running for office so you can be in a position that can create change in policy and produce to eliminate racism and inequity, and celebrate cultural diversity.
  5. Learn Black history so you understand the deep-rooted pain that comes with racism. Black soldiers fought alongside white soldiers for freedom and justice, but today, black people still do not have that in the USA.
  6. Support black-owned businesses.

PW: How can white and non-black nurses support the black community and their non-white colleagues if they experience racism at work or in the general public?

AB: There are several things you can do, but the first step is to:

  • Speak up about it
  • Call it out
  • Don't tolerate racism

When racism is tolerated, it's accepted.

PW: How can non-black nurses advocate for black patients? 

AB: Admit that racism exists, acknowledge that it occurs, and be willing to do something about it. White nurses need to have cultural competency entirely, and it's not achieved in an annual 2-4 hour online training - it's deeper than that. You need to study and interact with people of color. 

  1. Research needs to take center stage when it comes to understanding the mistrust blacks have in our healthcare system from the Tuskegee Study to Nazi Medical Experiments to dealing with today's broken health care system.
  2. Understand the social determinants of health that contribute to health disparities. Understand how your implicit bias and white privilege impact your physical assessment, clinical judgment, and the patient's plan of care. 
  3. Understand the difference between non-compliant and non-adherent - many times, black people want to do the things to stay in good health, but when there are deeply rooted systemic obstacles rooted in racism - that's hard to do so they can't. Be the change to help remove those barriers.

Michael Kearse, BSN, RN, CCRN- @OfficialMurseMike

African american male nurse in white coat

PW: How long have you been a nurse, and what's your specialty?

MK: I've been a nurse for almost eight years. I've served in various specialties, including fixed-wing flight nursing, but primarily work in ICU & ER.

PW: Share your experience with racism in nursing or with racism in your everyday life.

MK: I have way too many instances. These instances range from inadequate pain control to extremely unfair or unnecessary patient loads.

PW: As a black nurse, how are you dealing with everything going on in our community and then having to go to work and cope or suppress your feelings? 

MK: Being that my skin color affects me in some way, shape, or form EVERYWHERE I go, it's something you learn to live with. Because of the way I look, there are certain things:

  • I can't do
  • Places I can't go
  • Ways that I can't act 

You have to have a certain resilience about yourself to do this day in and out. 

PW: How is your mental health/how are you coping?

MK: I believe my mental health is good, but sometimes I wonder. I wonder how much better it would be if I didn't have to have my head on the swivel to avoid potential issues, mishaps, or systemic pitfalls that could threaten my livelihood or life. 

PW: What can healthcare workers do about social injustice?  

MK: I think it's more so a burden that lies on those uneducated about implicit bias and prejudice. We are in the age of Google. There's accessibility to more info than one could imagine. If a person is genuinely interested in learning how to combat systemic racism and get involved in social justice, they can research it just how they research and learn the latest hip-hop song or dance.

PW: How can white and non-black nurses support the black community and their non-white colleagues if they experience racism at work or in the general public?

MK: We all have some level and understanding of right, wrong, and moral compass (hopefully one that works). People know when they're wrong! They have to have the humility and balls to step up and check people. Not doing so and letting the behavior continue is just as bad as the behavior. 

PW: How can non-black nurses advocate for black patients? 

MK: There are no instructions on how to advocate for black patients. You advocate for them just the same as you would for your loved one.

A lot of the solution involves us holding people accountable for their actions as well. Most people only change because of fear of something or losing something. We have to start holding people accountable for their actions.

Shauna Chin, CCRN- @shaunachin, (Jamaica Diaspora Representative)

Woman speaking at act against aids event

PW: How long have you been a nurse, and what's your specialty?

SC: I've been a Critical Care Registered Nurse for over 17 years. 

PW: Share your experience with racism in nursing or with racism in your everyday life.

SC: I'm originally from Jamaica, where we deal with classism versus racism. It wasn't until I migrated to Detroit, that I saw racism's ugly head. I was a new nurse, eager to go the extra mile for my patients. During my rounds, after performing care for a patient, she looked at me and said, "You are nothing more than a half a** N****r!” I was crushed. 

PW: As a black nurse, how are you dealing with everything going on in our community and then having to go to work and cope or suppress your feelings? 

SC: The hospital can be such a sterile place, where everyone is always at a "normal.” Inside, I want to scream, "Can't you hear us yelling? We need more diversity in the boardroom, not an email that addresses the riots with a generic tone." In maintaining the status quo, I've been experiencing a lot of exhaustion, and today I noticed my body was stiff and sore. I'm so hyper-aware of interactions with me, both warm and uncomfortable. It's daily compartmentalization to get through the day. I make sure that when I get home, I find time to rest.

PW: How is your mental health/how are you coping?

SC: I'm sleeping a lot when I'm not at work. That's not necessarily a good thing. But it's my "go-to" coping mechanism/

PW: What can healthcare workers do about social injustice?  

SC: We can only combat injustice and promote equality when the decision-makers enforce it. We can start by:

  • Acknowledging that it exists at work.
  • Holding our HR Departments accountable for swift disciplinary actions against discrimination in the workplace, both online and at work. 
  • Appointing people who explicitly denounce systemic racism and voting out the ones who remain complicit.
  • Demanding more diversity in our workplace leadership.
  • Investing more in training local and state representatives ensures.
  • Vote in our local elections.

They affect policy where we live. We should increase our interactions with our representatives and hold them accountable.

PW: How can white and non-black nurses support the black community and their non-white colleagues if they experience racism at work or in the general public?

SC: 

  • Acknowledge that the issue exists.
  • Provide swift action against it.

PW: How can non-black nurses advocate for black patients? 

SC: Look your black patients in the eye and treat them as you would your family member.

Portia Wofford- @thewritenurse

Nurse portia wofford in blue scrubs against backdrop

Most of you know me as a writer and nurse. But before any of that, I'm a black woman. My nursing specialties are quality assurance in long term care settings and home health care, as well as infection prevention and control. I, too, have experienced racism throughout my career. Nonblack nurses would make statements:

  • Suggesting that I don't sound black
  • Implying that it's shocking that I'm not a single mother
  • Asking if my hair is real and if they can touch it
  • (Oh and my favorite) assuming I was on welfare before I became a nurse

If a nurse can be bold to say things like this to a coworker, imagine what they'd say to a patient? Imagine a nurse with racial biases and insensitivity caring for a vulnerable patient?

I'm exhausted, and I'm emotionally drained, so I'll leave you with this…

It's a hard plight being black in America.⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣ As a black nurse, how do I deal with seeing people who look like my son being murdered, marginalized, and discriminated against and me and then go to work and act as if it isn't happening?⁣⁣⁣⁣ How do I cope when no one at work understands?⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣

It's weighing on our mental health. We have no time to:

  • Mourn
  • Be frustrated
  • Grieve

We have to suppress our feelings. Hide our emotions. And still are expected to provide top-quality patient care to someone who would call us a nigger in any other circumstance.⁣⁣⁣

⁣⁣But we suck it up and work and deal with racist patients, family members, and coworkers.⁣⁣ ⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣

We have to hear stereotypical comments about someone who could be our brother or dad or sister or mother. We have to fight to make sure that black patient in room 101 is treated fairly and his or her symptoms and concerns are taken seriously. We even have some of those stereotypical comments thrown at us. 

Yet, we're told "to suck it up. That's just a part of the job."⁣⁣⁣⁣

We are hurting right now. We work in racially insensitive, hostile environments that aren't culturally inclusive or diverse.⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣

As our nonblack coworkers mock or make insensitive comments, we don't say anything for fear of being labeled as "aggressive" or "angry."⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣

To the nonblack nurses:

  1. Check on your black coworkers
  2. Acknowledge our feelings
  3. Stand in solidarity

⁣We don't want to hear "all lives matter" or "what about black on black crime" or "I don't know what to say" ⁣

We want you to speak out and speak up and use your privilege to support us and condemn systemic racism, inequality, and the blatant murder of black men, women, and children. ⁣

 

⁣⁣⁣⁣⁣Portia Wofford is an award-winning nurse, writer, content manager, and a coach for nurse writers. After dedicating her nursing career to creating content and solutions for employers that affected patient outcomes, these days Wofford strives to empower nurses by offering resources for mental wellbeing--while helping health related businesses grow their communities through engaging content that connects and converts. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter for her latest. 

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