In 1982, the famed gospel songwriter Andrae’ Crouch wrote a song with lyrics that contain the following words; “How can I say thanks, for the things You have done for me? Things so undeserved, yet, You gave to prove Your love for me; The voices of a million angels, could not express my gratitude. All that I am, and ever hope to be, I owe it all to Thee.” While the song is giving God the glory, the words are apropos for nurses that we all love and respect. During the first week of May each year, we honor our “angels” and tell them “thanks for all that they have done and continue to do for us”. While this year is no exception, what makes this Nurses’ Week especially meaningful is the light that the COVID-19 pandemic has shone on the sacrifice of these angels. When asking people what nurses mean to them, the following quotes were shared with me.
“I love nurses because people who need a nurses’ touch can always count on the nurse to give them exactly what they need, at the exact time that they need it.”
“Nurses can alleviate an individual’s stress, anxiety, and in some instances pain. The soft voice of a nurse can almost mask a person’s pain.”
A nurse will give you hope when there is no hope. A nurse must have a quality of care that stems from humility and all of the other branches that come from that humility will heal a patient.”
The most poignant comment comes from 11-year-old Pearson G. Paige who stated: “I love nurses. A nurse is something special. Nurses are cool. Nurses are nice.”
While people brag about our beloved Florence Nightingale, I want to turn your attention to a few of our African American nurses that have made a difference in not just the African American community, but in the world as a whole.
Meet Anna Knight, born in 1874 and from the state of Mississippi who taught herself how to read and write before attending nursing school. It is believed that Anna Knight would encounter knocks at her door from family members of victims of “botched hangings’” because God would not allow them to die that way. These “patients” were bought to Ms. Knight for her to nurse them back to health. Anna was known as a Christian woman who was strong in her beliefs and thus became one of the first African American missionary nurses to ever travel to India to care for others. When she returned from India, she established a school and church in her native Mississippi and eventually became an administrator of a hospital for blacks in Atlanta.
While there were many who officially practiced nursing before 1879, Mary Eliza Mahoney has been noted as the first African American “registered nurse”. She is credited with co-founding the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses and is one of the original members of what is now known as the American Nurses Association.
While many of us saw and loved the movie “Harriett,” little is mentioned in the movie about Harriett Tubman being a nurse. Not only did she free more than 300 slaves, but she also worked tirelessly as a union army nurse. One of her last acts of valor was the establishment of the “Harriett Tubman Home for the Aged” in 1908, which cared for the aging African American population.
Twice named the “Army Nurse of the Year,” Dr. Hazel W. Johnson-Brown not only faced discrimination as an African American nurse but beat it by earning a master’s and PhD degree in her specialty. She was one of the first African American women to lead the Army Nurse Corps, in addition to being promoted to brigadier general and was one of the only African Americans to teach in the PhD program at George Mason University in the late 1990s.
Continuing to serve not just the nation, but at Howard University as the Vice-Chair of the Board of Visitors, Dr. Bernadine Lacey also served as the Bronson School of Nursing’s founding director at Western Michigan University. She established a community program which skyrocketed. In her honor, The Bernardine M. Lacey Endowed Chair was created with the help of a $1.5 million anonymous donation in 1998. Lacey’s specialty in caring for the underserved follows her as the clinic at the Creative Center for Non-Violence (CCNV) Shelter on D Street in Northwest Washington is the recipient of a clinic that Dr. Lacey started over 20 years ago.
There are many that we could list within the arena of nursing that have focused on the healing of those within our African American community. Let us not forget to recognize those who cared for us when the “living room” was the triage area for many makeshift surgeries, procedures, obstetric and gynecological procedures, in addition to the emergency room for “many a patient.” You see there are many “nurses” who did not go to school to become a nurse but were still “nurses,” such as mothers who have nursed their children back to life. Nurses are also grandmothers who raised their multiple grandchildren and gave them “life.”
The story is told by a friend of mine who stepped on a 2×4 board in which a nail was lodged. His grandparents were one of the first “male and female nursing teams.” Subsequently, his grandfather put him on the table and told him to look at his grandmother, while he pulled the nail out of the nine-year-old’s foot.
The grandmother then took over and placed a piece of salt pork over the area which then leached out the rust from the nail and then ordered “bed rest” for the rest of the day. He stated that during her shift, she evaluated and cleaned the foot, eventually taking the bandage off, in which he noted that the salt pork had pulled out all of the impurities.
Another story is told of a young boy who was catching bees with a jar. Subsequently, he was stung by the bee and had an allergic reaction. The neighbor next door, took a cigarette, broke it in half, got the tobacco out, wet it, and placed it on the sting. Immediately the swelling went down, and the pain went away.
As black people, we have learned how to “nurse” in so many ways. We have learned how to take care of each other mentally, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. How many churches have been filled with the mothers of the church acting as “psychiatric nurses” for many?
However, as we honor our nurses during this Nurses’ Week, we honor them as never before, realizing their importance, their value, and their worth during this unprecedented time in our nation’s history. To all of our nurses who have worked tirelessly, worked back to back shifts, turned patients “prone” due to COVID-19, cried with family members, attended 10 person funerals, and have ultimately paid for illnesses with their own lives, we salute you. Your sacrifice has not gone unnoticed, nor has it been made in vain. Thank you for what you do every day, all day, for people that you don’t even know. Thank you, thank you, thank you. May GOD repay you 100-fold for what you give to others each and every day.
In 2014, Melisa Wilson, DNP, ARNP, ACNP-BC, the Clinical Operations Director and Pulmonary Hypertension Program Coordinator at AdventHealth Orlando, discovered a lump in her breast. Fearing a cancer diagnosis, her husband encouraged her to see her doctor immediately.
Wilson nearly didn’t. After all, she didn’t have a family history of breast cancer. She thought it was a mammary duct drying up as she was pumping breast milk less for their child.
Thankfully, she listened to her husband. An ultrasound led to a biopsy and then a diagnosis.
“I was taken entirely by surprise. The journey was swift from the time we felt the lump to diagnosis—just eight days. I did not expect to hear, ‘I am sorry, Mrs. Wilson, you have breast cancer,’” Wilson recalls.
Wilson’s diagnosis was Stage IIB HER2 positive, and for the next 18 months, her treatments included Herceptin, Perjeta, Carboplatin, Taxotere, and Neulasta. Her inspiration was her son, who had been born at 23-weeks. “He fought for his life, and in turn, it inspired me to fight for mine,” says Wilson. “My faith in God got me though.” She also had tremendous support from her family, work family, friends, and her oncology team, including her NP, MD, and LCSW.
The most challenging part of her journey, Wilson says, was financial. “The bills for oncology treatment came in quickly and were very high. I maintained my full-time job as a nurse practitioner, though, with some accommodations. I would work up to the day of chemo, take six days to recover, and then return to work for another two-week cycle,” she recalls. “It was hard, and the bills would be overwhelming to deal with at times. I remember being at chemotherapy and getting a call asking me to pay several thousand dollars to pay for a test I needed.”
Wilson beat the cancer, and she says that she now can more easily empathize with her patients because of what she’s experienced. “As an NP, I can relate to my patients on so many different levels. My patients have a rare cardiopulmonary disease—pulmonary hypertension. Most have no idea what pulmonary hypertension entails,” she says.
A few years ago, Wilson says, she had a patient who was scared about having a line placed in her chest. This needed to be done for infusion of pulmonary hypertension treatment. The patient experienced a lot of pain due to being on a subcutaneously infused machine. “One day I called her and asked for her to come in for an office visit with me. I explained that I had done as much as I could to manage her pain, and she needed to consider a different route of infusion. She was tearful and upset. She was concerned about her body image,” says Wilson. “I showed her my port, though it was different and showed her my head, which was hairless due to chemo. I told her, ‘I understand what it is like for your body to change in front of your eyes, but these are the things we do to survive.’ We cried together, and she went on to have the line placed.”
Just recently, Wilson says that her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. Wilson believes that she went through her journey so that she can help others and that cancer taught her how to live and not be as fearful. “My tribulation shaped me, and now I help my Mom. I am happy to be her advocate,” says Wilson. “Being there for her and not feeling helpless is rewarding. I know it gives her comfort.”
Dr. Tammy Sinkfield-Morey, DNP, MAN, RN, PHN, CCRN, is a Nursing Supervisor at Gillette Children’s Specialty Healthcare in St. Paul, MN. In 2018 the March of Dimes named Dr. Sinkfield-Morey “Distinguished Nurse of The Year,” and the Minnesota Hospital Association appointed her as 2019 “Caregiver of the Year” for her work in Storying, Diversity and Inclusion. With her background, she was naturally inspired by the concept of the nurse’s salon, and started one in the Twin Cities dedicated to the needs of nurses of color [NOC]. In the latest issue of Creative Nursing, Dr. Sinkfield-Morey discusses the NOC salon and its history.
Nursing salons are a thing of beauty and dynamism! They provide opportunity for collegiality, comfort, collaboration, connectivity, and conversations about what’s on the hearts and minds of the participants.
I first experienced Marie Manthey’s Nursing Salon in 2013. In 2016, I revisited her gatherings and attended seven salons that year, when to my wonder, I realized that the issues on my mind as an African American nurse were quite often not the same as those on the minds of the White nurses present. During that same reflection, I was moved by the fact that during each of the salons, I was the only nurse of brown hue. Marie had reassured me that other nurses of color (NOC) attend the nursing salons; however, it is common for them to also be “the only” when at any one of the gatherings.
The experience of being “the only” was nothing new to me. I had spent most of my life as the only person of color in the spaces I inhabited. That was the case at the Catholic school I attend during my preschool, elementary, and middle school years, and I was, for the first 7 years of my professional career, the only nurse of color where I worked. It is not uncommon for a person of color to be “the only,” but it is almost never entirely comfortable.
Ta-Nehisi Coates beautifully articulates the sentiment of the feeling I had as a lone Black professional among my colleagues at one of the salons. He said,
“I knew that my portion of the American galaxy, where bodies were enslaved by a tenacious gravity, was Black and that the other, liberated portion was not. I knew that some inscrutable energy preserved the breach. I felt, but did not yet understand, the relationship between the other world and me. And I felt in this cosmic injustice, a profound cruelty, which infused an abiding, irrepressible desire to unshackle my body and achieve the velocity of escape.”
–Ta Nehisi Coates, Between the world and me
There it was.
I became consumed by the distance I perceived between the world of the other nurses and my own. I also recognized the healing moments and revelations that the nursing salons rather serendipitously rendered for their participants. I knew that these forums of uninhibited sharing and purposeful dialogue about all of our experiences as nurses could also be a sacred space for authentic discussions about race, racism, and the foundational contexts of discrimination and White supremacy in health care that people of color, as consumers and providers, have all experienced.
I pondered for weeks the possibilities for change. I wondered what could be accomplished by a collective of Black and Brown women and men in health care, gathering in conversation about what’s on their mind regarding the social construct we call race and the undermining behaviors and divisiveness that accompany it. What effect could it have on, for example, the experience of professional validation and emergence, and yes, even on the institution of racism?
Marie Manthey says, “Salons are lively gatherings where people engage in big talk—talk that amuses, challenges, amazes and is sometimes passionately acted upon. Most importantly, salons are gatherings where each participant forms and informs the conversation. Unlike formal meetings, they are opportunities where people can casually connect and share their experiences.” In addition to Marie’s view, I envisioned that a “NOC” salon would provide a shelter under which the burdens and pain of discrimination, racism, bigotry, bias, and White supremacy, that some of our professionals in health care experience when caring for others, could be spoken aloud, unharnessed, finally heard.
I knew in that instant that I needed to help create a space for nurses and other health-care workers of color to escape from the confines of prejudice and any other judgment they face in their practice; and I knew that a nursing salon for NOC, modeled after the salons that Marie had designed, would be the propitious space for the rich conversation that would emancipate our voices. In a loving moment of mutuality and grace, on June 19, 2018—Juneteenth (an African American holiday commemorating the date in 1865 when many slaves in Texas learned they had been freed by the Emancipation Proclamation of June 1, 1863)—we experienced our first NOC Nursing Salon in Marie Manthey’s home, a moment created as a catalyst for ongoing conversations.
At our first NOC salon we defined our purpose as having conversations about our lived professional (and personal) experiences with racism, difference, and the pursuit of inclusion and equality, on a continuum to learn from each other. Our intention was to convene as NOC, in dialogue about our individual and shared journeys and about our encounters with others who place less value on the beautiful essence of who we are. As we all consciously contributed, genuinely from our hearts, about the ways we deal with racism, we were empowered through learning each other’s stories. Through dialogue, we discovered hope that we could create opportunities to make our practices more inclusive, and reduce the biases and microaggressions that we experience. We established a safe and caring environment, centered around listening to each other.
Our subsequent NOC salon was filled with heartwarming, inspiring, meaningful, and interconnected dialogue. Prominent Black Nurse leaders and people of color in nursing joined in rich conversation and acknowledgment of our impact in nursing historically, and in nursing practice in general. We ended the salon feeling heard and acknowledged, having had the opportunity to share our personal experiences, both good and bad, that occur in our healing environments. We all participated in conversation about our positive and negative experiences of equity adversity and racial inequality in our practices.
True to the nature of the salon, these beautiful NOC and their hosts created a lively gathering in which we all engaged in big talk; talk about challenges we face as NOC, discussions about racism past and present, renewal of the spirits within us, and our endless passion for what and who we are as nurses. I have so much gratitude for the beautiful people who attended our salons and created an exquisite tapestry of thoughts, experiences, and new memories through which we can all grow, expand our practices, and share our voices. I look forward to more conversations at our NOC Salons on institutionalized supremacy and its corrosive effects on all of our bodies, Black and White. I am energized to create space through the power of the salon for the pursuit of knowing, and the right to declare our own curiosities as we “evolve towards some truth that is ultimately outside of the boundaries” (Coates, 2015) of our lives and bodies and our nursing practice.
To attend the NOC Salons in the Twin Cities, or to learn more about how to create a NOC Salon in your area, please visit our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/nursesofcolorsalon/
A recent Trends in Retirement Security by Race/Ethnicity study by the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College showed what many minorities already know: as a group, minorities are less prepared for retirement security.
The report studied how different groups have fared financially since the recession of 2008. The study examined the wealth holdings and the medial household earnings of white, black, and Hispanic households. It revealed that while all groups saw their funds decline significantly, white households have rebounded better than black or Hispanic households, with Hispanics faring the worst.
According to the study, in 2007, white households held a median net wealth of $183,100 with median household earnings of $63,900. Black households held $39,00 in median net wealth with $39,100 in earnings. Hispanic households held $59,300 with income of $44,000.
By 2016, white households had $132,100 of net wealth with $67,200 in median earnings. Black households had $18,300 in net wealth and $37,000 in median earnings. Hispanic households held $24,400 in net wealth and median earnings of $38,000.
The significant drops in both total net wealth and median household earnings means minority families have less money to pay for everyday costs and little if any income left to save for retirement. And although the study did mention that at the moment Social Security will up the replacement rates for low earners, that’s little comfort for families who aren’t able to save for their futures right now.
The study estimates that half of all households in the United States are at risk for being prepared for retirement, the figures are different for each group. About 48 percent of whites, 54 percent of blacks, and 61 percent of Hispanics are at risk of not having enough to fund their retirement years. And if you are a caregiver to someone and a nurse, you have a distinct challenge.
What does that mean for retirement security and making good financial decisions? Saving any money at all is better than saving nothing. Taking a hard look at where your money goes now is a good first step. Then set a goal. If you want to save $50 a month, you’ll either need to reduce your spending or make more money. That could mean eliminating some things like buying take-out food or drinks. Coffees, sodas, and iced teas are rarely worth the price away from home. Packing meals and snacks to bring to work or to tide you over for a long day of clinicals and classes also makes a difference. Examine your cable bill, your phone costs, your entertainment expenses, and clothing expenses. Keep only what is absolutely necessary.
If there’s little space to reduce your expenses, think of ways to bring in a little more income and put it aside for retirement. Whether it is selling clothes online, tutoring nursing students, or taking a short-term consulting job, extra income can make a big dent in retirement goals.
Whatever you do, don’t sell yourself short. You are saving for your own future, and that alone is worth making it a priority.
Earlier this fall, Vanderbilt University School of Nursing named Dr. Rolanda Johnson, PhD, MSN, RN as the new Assistant Dean for Diversity and Inclusion. Johnson, who is also the assistant dean for academics and associate professor of nursing, has replaced Assistant Professor Jana Lauderdale, who returned to her faculty role. Johnson is continuing to shape and foster VUSN’s environment of inclusivity. We spoke with Dr. Johnson to learn more about her experience and her goals for VUSN.
Dr. Rolanda Johnson
What has been your career path so far and how has it led you to your current role as assistant dean of diversity and inclusion?
My desire to work as a health care professional began when I was elementary age. As an 11th grader, I decided to attend nursing school. I completed my Bachelor of Science in Nursing degree at Tuskegee University in 1985. Those were very formative years of training and education when I gained a wide range of clinical experiences with diverse populations. After graduating from Tuskegee University, I worked in a community hospital in Montgomery, AL, at Fairview Medical Center where I was exposed to people who I now know had limited access to health care. At Fairview Medical Center, I witnessed a sense of family among employees who were dedicated to providing the highest level of quality care to all that were in need with genuine caring attitude. I later began employment at Jackson Hospital in Montgomery, AL, working in numerous roles including that of nurse educator and clinical nurse specialist. During this time, I obtained a Master of Science in Nursing from Troy State University located in Troy, AL. Working as a nurse educator, I developed a desire to have a greater impact on African American health. Shortly, thereafter I began doctoral studies at Vanderbilt University and later obtained a Doctorate of Philosophy in Nursing Science degree. I have worked in numerous roles of nursing including clinician, educator, researcher and administrator, which led to my current position.
How has your professional background influenced your passion for diversity and inclusion?
Throughout my education trajectory, I have always been keenly aware of the health disparities and inequities some groups of individuals face. I am employed in Nashville while residing and working with my husband in an extremely underserved rural county in Mississippi. The social determinates of health naturally impact the health status of many. Who you are, where you live and what you have, sadly, monumentally impacts the quality of care one receives and access to health. As an educator, I work with students across the spectrum who are often impacted by these factors either individually or through family and friends. For me, all of these experiences have translated to my desire to make a difference in the lives of those that are often overlooked and to help others see the integration of all facets that impact the lives of our students and their performance.
Where did your passion for diversity and inclusion in the nursing field begin?
My passion for diversity and inclusion began during my studies at Tuskegee University. Those were very formative years of training and education. The wide range of clinical experiences with populations across the socioeconomic spectrum and from rural Tuskegee, AL, to metropolitan Atlanta, GA, opened my eyes to the varying degrees of heath care and access for different groups of people. Naturally, at that time I could only assess health disparities from my early developmental lens but these experiences have proven to be instrumental in guiding my nursing career.
For the past 20 years, I have resided in Macon, MS, a low-income, rural community, and have been employed approximately 300 miles away in metropolitan Nashville, TN. This has afforded me the opportunity to observe health care delivery cycles and the degree of effectiveness across diverse populations including associated gaps and health disparities. This phenomenon has fueled my passion to educate advanced practice nurses who will be equipped to fill these gaps and better meet the health care needs of all populations. The key to have advanced practice nurses who can deliver quality culturally sensitive health care.
How do you define diversity and inclusion at Vanderbilt?
Within VUSN, our core belief is that all students, staff and faculty regardless of our differences should feel included and equitable. This is reflected in the VUSN diversity and inclusivity statement, which states at VUSN “we are intentional about and assume accountability for fostering advancement and respect for equity, diversity and inclusion for all students, faculty and staff.” The full statement can be found on the VUSN website.
What are you most excited about with your new position?
The most important part of my new role is the possibility of enhancing the culture climate within VUSN and creating a path for continued improvement for years to come. I am humbled to be a part of this endless journey. I hope to leave an indelible imprint of creating a difference in this area within VUSN.
What strategies do you feel will have the most positive impact on the Vanderbilt Nursing community?
The umbrella strategy is to transform the level of diversity and inclusion within VUSN by minimizing bias across our core areas of academics, faculty practice, research and informatics among faculty, staff and students. Additional strategies will be to improve the cultural climate of VUSN for all students, faculty and staff and to increase the diversity representation among faculty, staff and students.
What are the biggest challenges that you will face in your new role?
The biggest challenge is to keep the diversity and inclusion momentum moving forward within VUSN. Within any organization, change is often difficult and once that change has occurred, it is so easy to be complacent with past accomplishments. The test is to bask in accomplishments for the moment and then move forward to the next challenge and goal.
What diversity goals do you have for yourself and Vanderbilt’s School of Nursing?
My goal is to pursue a high level of excellence in health care by finding creative ways to deliver this level of care to underserved populations. From a diversity and inclusive view, I desire to minimize bias, improve the cultural climate and increase diversity representation in faculty, staff and students within VUSN.
What is a fun fact about you?
I am a college football fanatic.
Last issue’s health policy column highlighted nursing’s increased engagement in the public policy arena. To continue this conversation, this column highlights a registered nurse running for Congress to help champion access to affordable health care. Yes, Lauren Underwood, MSN/MPH, RN, of Naperville, Illinois is running for Congress to represent the 14th Congressional District of Illinois.
Her Journey to Pursuing an Elected Position
Underwood is steadfast and fiercely committed to helping shape policies and programs focused on ensuring that everyone has access to affordable health care. She is a registered nurse who received her BSN from the University of Michigan and her MSN/MPH from Johns Hopkins University. Her nursing experiences include service as a health policy advisor, research fellow, senior director, and research nurse at the National Institutes of Health Clinical Center. Her passion for public policy was heightened while serving as a health policy advisor in the Office of the Secretary at the Health and Human Services in Washington, DC initially under the leadership of Secretary Kathleen Sebelius followed by the leadership of Secretary Sylvia Burwell. In this capacity, Underwood worked on private insurance reform, summary of insurance benefits, health care quality in the Medicare program, the Agency for Health care Research and Quality, and preventive services (free screenings, immunizations, and contraceptive coverage) for four and a half years from 2010-2014.
Lauren Underwood, MSN/MPH, RN
Democratic Candidate for Congress, 14th Congressional District of Illinois
Tell us about working for the Obama administration.
Got a call the week that Mr. [Thomas Eric] Duncan was in the hospital in Dallas with Ebola asking if I would be willing to join the President’s team to help with disaster response, so I transferred over to ASPR, the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response, at HHS. We worked on emerging infectious diseases (e.g., Ebola, Zika Virus, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome virus, or MERS), we also did national disasters (e.g., wildfires, hurricanes, floods) and then bioterror (small pox, anthrax) and worked with drug companies to develop vaccines, treatments, and diagnostics. I stayed in the administration until the very end, the last day. And so, when the election happened in 2016 we were working on the water crisis in Flint. I was surprised, and I thought that Hillary Clinton’s team was going to win and that we were going to hand off our work on health reform and on Flint to people who cared and wanted to continue the process. And then we got the Trump team who made it very clear they wanted to do away with health care coverage. And that’s not why I went into nursing or why I did this work. So, I knew I could stay in government and help them do that. I wanted to continue the work and so I came back home to Illinois because Illinois is a state that expanded Medicaid. I got a job working for a Medicaid managed care company in Chicago as the Senior Director for Strategy and Regulatory Affairs for a company called Next Level Health.
Are you still there?
I left my job about six weeks ago. The primary campaign was about eight months. I worked full time six and a half months; you know you have to do that. I am a young person, not someone of particular means or whatever, so it was necessary. And then it was like “Lauren, you could really win if you put your time and energy into the campaign.” And so that was an easy choice to transfer to full time.
So, you are now devoting full time to the campaign?
This reflects your journey. Describe in a few words what really made you run for an elected position.
I am going to tell you a story. Last spring when I returned home, I went to congressman Randy Hultgren’s one and only public event. It was a moderated event hosted by the League of Women Voters. And during that evening, he made a promise and said that he was only going to support a version of Obamacare repeal that allowed people with preexisting conditions to keep their coverage. That’s important to me as a nurse. I also know how critical it is for people with chronic illness to have access to medications and procedures that they need. Obviously, I worked to implement the Affordable Care Act so I read the law and I know that it works. I know that we can fix what does not work. We do not have to throw the whole thing away. Like so many Americans, I have a preexisting condition myself. I have a heart condition, SVT (supraventricular tachycardia), and it is well controlled. As you know, it is a preexisting condition, so I would not be able to get coverage under these repeal scenarios. And so, when the congressman made that promise I believed him.
And then a week to ten days later he went and voted for the American Health Care Act, which is a version of repeal that did the opposite. It made it cost prohibitive for people like me to get coverage. And so, I was upset not at the vote itself, but because he did not have the integrity to be honest the one time he stood before our community. That’s not what a representative is supposed to do. A representative is supposed to be transparent, accessible, and honest. And we deserve better. I said, “you know what, it’s on! I’m running” and launched my campaign in August and just won the primary on March 20th. I was in a field of seven—the only woman running against six men—and I won 57% of the vote.
Were you the only African American?
I know you are concerned about overall access to care and have a deep commitment to utilizing your expertise and experience while working in the Obama administration.
I believe that health care is the number one issue in this election across the country and in our district, and we need a solution to make health care more affordable for American families. It is not enough for families to rake together money for their premiums and have an insurance card in their pockets and cannot afford the coverage.
I believe that a lot of the conversation in the last several years has been political in nature and undoing President Obama’s legacy and not on at all focused on trying to lower costs and make health care accessible for American families. That’s my objective! I want to work on drug prices. I want to work on this opioid drug crisis so that loved ones can get the treatment that they so desperately need. And so, I believe there is a lot of value in having a nurse at the negotiation tables when we are making these decisions and passing policies that will transform our health care system. I am excited about the opportunity to be a leading voice on Capitol Hill on these important issues.
What do you think are the most pressing issues impacting nursing and health care?
Affordability. Any program that is starved of resources will fail. The ACA has been intentionally sabotaged and as a result, we see extraordinary high premiums that are unaffordable for most families. That is not how the program was designed to work and so I think there are technical fixes we can do to make the program more affordable. We can do things like negotiate drug prices, it can be done, we need to take a strong position on this opioid drug addiction crisis. We need to implement reforms like how we pay for rehab and how we award funds to municipalities in order to create a pathway for lasting change. And then there are opportunities to expand coverage so we will have fewer uninsured Americans. What we are seeing now in order to resuscitate it takes 2-3 doses of Narcan because the drugs are so strong. Municipalities who have received Narcan grants are running out of Narcan. A Narcan only solution is not a solution. Law enforcement only solution is not a solution. Addiction is an illness and we need to treat it as such. We need to send people to treatment so they can have a shot at recovery. We could have an evidence-based policy solution. We know treatment can be effective.
What do you think is the most pressing issue affecting nursing today?
I think there are a few things. The high cost of our education. We have not really seen increases in funding. What we have seen are marginal increases or flat funding. I think that this is unacceptable, in particular in the context of what we are seeing in higher education more broadly. And not just at the federal level. In higher education, many states have reduced putting money into public education, shifting the responsibility to families and individuals and with that coupled with flat funding for nursing education we are seeing a generation of nursing students with significant debt. And that is going to be a barrier, I believe, to our profession being able to grow. Right now, we have an economic situation where we are not seeing the shortage that we saw ten years ago. But it’s very easy to get back to that point if the economics of going into nursing shifts when you graduate from a BSN program with $100,000 in debt and are limited in your initial salary. Loan repayment programs are not that plentiful as they used to be. The economics of it makes it tough. Because we are talking about middle class folks who are not able to take on that debt. And when it is becoming increasingly attractive to become an APRN, that is all debt to be able to get the master’s to become a nurse practitioner or a nurse midwife. We are going to need some serious advocacy and a plan to deal with the cost of our education.
What are your thoughts about safe staffing?
It is so interesting. Safe staffing has been a legislative priority for decades. We have not been able to pass these bills. I think the approach needs to be more balanced with safe staffing committees in these hospitals. Moving away from these ratios and having hospitals have safe staffing committees that would take into consideration the circumstances that facilities and the region when staffing levels. On these committees, nurses would serve so a legislative body is not dictating it. I think that this is an appropriate approach coupled with compelling Medicare participating facilities to set staffing levels and monitor outcomes.
When elected, what would you do to go about helping to ensure equitable access to health care?
That’s like the question! For me, equitable access to health care allows everyone to get health care. Health care is a human right. Human rights have been fundamental to my nursing practice. It is written in our Code of Ethics—this idea that everyone should have health care—and I think our policies should reflect that. For me, that includes fixing the Affordable Care Act to ensure affordable coverage; and making sure we have clinics, hospitals, and facilities in communities so that the burden is not on low-income people or people with transportation challenges or resource limitations so that people are able to get the care and services they need. We have so much innovation, technology, and so many improvements now in a way we are able to provide care whether it’s telemedicine or individualized health care. It is a shame if all of that innovation and all of those improvements are seen in resource communities. We need to be focused in these conversations about reform and transforming our system to ensure that it is serving everyone—rural, urban, low income, and elderly.
What advice would you give to aspiring policy advocates who may be considering a run for public office?
Your country needs you! There are too few nurses in policy positions. Seek a County Board position. The County Board supervises the local Department of Health. Run for state legislator, they address scope of practice issues. Run for Congress! There are many opportunities to serve and lead. Step forward!