Updated: Sep 14, 2020
The clock reads 1:04 am. An elderly woman shuffles around the hospital hallways with a walker, her nurse following closely behind her. “Come on, Mrs. Jane, it's time for you to go to sleep,” she says, blocking her pathway to the elevator while trying to steer her back to her bedroom. “Don’t touch me!” she screams from the top of her lungs, “I don’t need a n**** telling me what to do! How did you even get this job anyway? You can’t afford anything!” Understanding that her dementia talks for her more often than not, does not eliminate the shock that nurses on the floor felt. An aura of sadness, and anger filled the narrow hallway. A multicultural nursing floor, we collectively embodied the feeling, but tried to calmly discuss and de-escalate the topic at hand. “Mrs. Jane,” the charge nurse said while walking next to her, “what you said was not nice and honestly hurtful.” Ignoring to acknowledge the pain she had caused, she continued on her path around the unit, unbothered.
I remember standing at the nurse’s station, thinking that unsettling feeling was going to be few and far between. A week later, another incident of subtle racism occurred to my coworker. Another huddle, another unsettling feeling. As an experienced nurse, you see and hear a multitude of comments from patients that are at their most vulnerable. You understand from a nursing lens that people tend to be at their worst during their most emotional states, leaving you to grapple with the weight of their words while simultaneously providing exemplary care; but you are also human. You internalize what is constantly repeated at you. The sentiments of Mrs. Jane are paralleled with that found within the rhetoric during this unprecedented time.
This new millennium has brought about two pandemics for the black community- the coronavirus and systemic racism. During the start of the global pandemic - COV19, we saw an international movement for personal protective equipment, and unified protocols to ensure the safety of all citizens. I personally felt the unifying force that came with this unknown virus. It was everything - the news, social media. Health disparities have been well-researched, so it was not surprising that a few months after collecting data that the trends became to emerge - the Black and Latinx communities were disproportionately affected, in large due to having more chronic co-morbidities and decreased access to healthcare. Concurrently, the death of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor has taken the world by storm - pushing people onto the streets to demand justice and fight for policy changes. Too often we are seeing the lives of the Black community taken away from us, and just as often we never have the time to heal from the emotional wounds it brings.
But the real question is - what can healthcare providers do about patients like Mrs. Jane? How can we be an agent of change? As healthcare providers, it's our job to not only recognize but take action to better serve our patients. Our duty is to create a better patient-provider relationship that embodies open communication and active listening. Studies have shown that black patients tend to not trust their providers or the medical system due to experiments such as the Tuskegee Experiment, experimentation done on black bodies without consent. By creating this strong bond, we understand the patient’s need holistically, promotes patient engagement, and increases the chance that they will be an active part of their medical plan.
"In a World Full of Muffins, Be a Cupcake!"
Sheima Gimie BSN,RN