According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), approximately 20% of our nation’s 23.5 million veterans are people of color. Like other racial and ethnic minority populations, minority veterans face a variety of unique health care challenges, ranging from chronic disease disparities and high levels of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to difficulties in accessing medical treatment.
Testifying before the House Committee on Veterans Affairs in July 2007, Lucretia McClenney, MSN, RN, director of the VA’s Center for Minority Veterans (CMV), noted that “in many instances, any challenges that minority veterans encounter as they seek services from VA are magnified by the adverse conditions in their local communities. These challenges may include [lack of] access to VA medical facilities (especially for American Indians, Alaska Natives, Pacific Islanders and other veterans residing in rural, remote or urban areas), disparities in health care centered on diseases and illnesses that disproportionately affect minorities, homelessness, unemployment, lack of clear understanding of VA claims processing and benefit programs, limited medical research and limited statistical data relating to minority veterans.”
The CMV’s mission is to identify barriers to service and health care access, increase local awareness of minority veteran-related issues and improve minority participation in existing VA benefit programs. As a result, VA medical facilities throughout the country are implementing strategies to provide veterans of color with more accessible, culturally sensitive care. Each VA health care facility has a Minority Veterans Program Coordinator (MVPC) who serves as a liaison and advocate for minority patients. And VA health care professionals are taking the lead in developing innovative solutions for closing the gap of health disparities, from outreach programs designed to increase minority veterans’ use of services to diversity training programs aimed at increasing staff members’ understanding of patients’ cultural needs.
Not surprisingly, nurses are playing key roles in these efforts. Here’s a look at how individual nurses are working to improve health outcomes for minority veterans, one program at a time.
Native American Outreach
Bruce Kafer, MSN, RN, is a member of the Oglala Sioux (Lakota) Tribe that resides on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Adopted as an infant by white parents, he grew up with virtually no knowledge of his tribal culture. After tracking down his birth mother in 2000, he began to learn about his lost Indian heritage from his Tiospaye (Lakota extended family) and tribal elders. Now, as American Indian/Latino Outreach Coordinator at the Louis Stokes Cleveland (Ohio) Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center, Kafer is drawing on his rediscovered heritage to provide culturally sensitive healing to Indian vets.
Kafer, who works with Native veterans both in Cleveland and in Arizona, is also a PhD student at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, where he is conducting research with Indian vets to add to the limited body of knowledge available about this population. Through his research, he has discovered some compelling statistics about Native Americans who have fought for their country. During World War II, for example, 40% of the Cheyenne Nation volunteered service to the U.S. military. During the Vietnam War, 90% of eligible Cheyenne volunteered for duty, with the overwhelming majority serving in combat areas. Yet despite this long-standing history of service, Native Americans have historically underutilized VA services, Kafer says.
“Part of my role,” he adds, “is to help bridge that gap and make services more accessible.” To accomplish this, Kafer does outreach to the American Indian community, participating in powwows and other cultural events, visiting reservations in remote locations and working with Native veterans and elders from a variety of tribes to develop culturally appropriate programs.
There are about 562 federally recognized Indian tribes in this country and 365 state-recognized tribes, each with their own unique cultural traditions and, in many cases, their own indigenous languages. Therefore, VA nurses who work with Native veterans often find themselves treating a patient population that is not homogeneous but highly diverse—a concept Kafer calls “diversity within diversity.” Still, he says, while culture and language may differ from tribe to tribe, there are some basic beliefs about health, illness, healing and spirituality that are common to all Native people.
“In traditional Native American culture, health and healing begin first in the spirit, then the mind, then in the body,” he explains. “In the Western model of health care, it’s an opposite paradigm—health and disease begin first in the body, then in the mind, last in the spirit.”
Kafer won an award from the Society of American Indian Government Employees (SAIGE) for a VA diversity training video he helped produce, called “Native America: Diversity Within Diversity.” Created as part of the VA’s R.E.A.C.H. for Diversity program, the video has been distributed to all VA medical centers nationwide to increase employees’ understanding of the unique challenges Indian veterans face.
“Native America resonates with me and my history,” Kafer says. “I’m in a unique position to contribute to improving health care for Native American veterans because I understand about bureaucracy, government and the various phenomena that can impact tribal access to health care.”
Kafer is also involved in another innovative diversity training project, the Gathering of Healers program at the Southern Arizona VA Health Care System in Tucson. The program brings the facility’s staff together with Native veterans and elders to learn more about American Indian culture and how to provide culturally competent care.
“Staff come back from the Gathering of Healers and are more aware of the special needs of this [population],” says Yvonne Garcia, BSN, RN, the facility’s American Indian Nursing Case Manager. “They learn to treat people with cultural humility. They want to know more about them instead of making assumptions.”
Garcia, who is part Mandan Indian, also works with the Indian Health Service to complement services delivered to Native veterans.
Researching Health Disparities
Carol Baldwin, PhD, RN, CHTP, CT, AHN-BC, associate professor and director of the Office of International Health, Scientific and Educational Affairs at Arizona State University College of Nursing and Healthcare Innovation in Phoenix, is a nurse researcher who has focused some of her recent work on studying chronic disease disparities in Mexican American veterans, a population about whom very little health information is available. She led one study which found that, compared to non-Hispanic white veterans, Mexican American veterans were significantly more likely to have diagnosed type 2 diabetes and that having a high body mass index (BMI) put them at greater risk of developing the disease.
More recently, Baldwin published a study in the September 2007 issue of the Journal of Nursing Scholarship that compared homocysteine levels and other stroke risk factors between Mexican American and Caucasian male veterans. High homocysteine levels in the blood have been associated with increased risk of cardiovascular diseases, such as coronary heart disease and stroke.
Baldwin conducted her research in Tucson at the Southern Arizona VA Health Care System’s Minority Vascular Center. She found that Mexican Americans have higher homocysteine levels regardless of whether they scored a high or low risk for stroke. She also determined that the Framingham Stroke Profile, a commonly used stroke risk assessment tool, was derived for a predominantly Caucasian population and does not necessarily provide relevant stroke risk factors for people of other races and ethnicities.
Baldwin says her findings suggest that Mexican American veterans, like other minority populations, face barriers to stroke prevention and therapy, including lower income and education, as well as dietary, genetic and environmental factors.
There has also been very little research conducted on the health care needs of Puerto Rican veterans, says Constance Uphold, PhD, ARNP-BC, FAAN, a research health scientist with the Rehabilitation Outcomes Research Center at the North Florida/South Georgia Veterans Health System in Gainesville. Her current work focuses primarily on the health challenges experienced by Puerto Rico veterans returning from Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) and Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF).
In one study, Uphold—who has a master’s degree in transcultural nursing and a doctoral degree in family health nursing—examined mental health issues affecting Hispanic veterans and their caregivers and families. She documented stressors from each group’s perspective, as well as successful coping models. Based on her findings, Uphold and her colleagues developed 12 culturally competent fact sheets for veterans, family members and clinicians. These educational materials are tailored to Puerto Rican veterans, complete with colors and symbols from the Puerto Rican flag. She’s now working to secure funding to reproduce and disseminate the fact sheets.
This past February, Uphold became a co-investigator of a grant that will research stroke interventions and family caregiving for Hispanic veterans, as well as how to disseminate stroke prevention information to this population. The Spanish-language information will be posted on MyHealtheVet.com, an interactive Web site that encourages veterans to take charge of their own health.
Promoting Health Literacy
Teaching minority veterans with chronic diseases how to self-manage their conditions is also a priority for Jawel Lemons, RN, MS, FNP-C, associate director of Patient Nursing Services at the Charlie Norwood VA Medical Center in Augusta, Georgia. Lemons remembers watching her own father struggle with his health. The man who raised her had a third-grade education and couldn’t read the directions printed on his medicine bottles.
“I thought, ‘If he wasn’t living with me, what would he do?’” she says. “That’s when I came up with the idea for the labels.”
The “labels” in question were part of a highly successful health literacy program Lemons created and implemented at the Dallas VA Medical Center in Texas before transferring to her current position in Augusta last year. As a cardiology nurse practitioner in the medical center’s congestive heart failure clinic, she often received referrals from primary care providers for patients who appeared to be noncompliant with their medications. Assessing the situation, Lemons discovered that the real reason why the veterans weren’t taking their medicine was that they had low literacy levels and couldn’t understand the instructions printed on their prescription labels.
So she designed a protocol for teaching her low-literacy patients how to take their medications correctly, using pictures instead of words. She found colorful, easy-to-understand computer clip art symbols, copied them onto adhesive labels and stuck them on the patients’ medicine bottles. For example, a rooster pictured with a sunrise symbolized a morning medication, while a bed indicated a nighttime medication. Lemons also transferred the same symbols to the patients’ pill boxes. As a result, the patients’ health improved dramatically.
VA Travel Nurse Corps
Her current goal is to establish special needs clinics across the VA system, with physician consults on site and nurses who are trained to make sure medications are properly labeled. She also hopes the concept of using picture labels will catch on with pharmacies.
Another way Lemons is empowering minority veterans to take control of their health is by providing them with culturally relevant dietary guidelines. “A lot of our [patient education] information is geared toward the average [majority] American, but there’s not much on the different cultures,” she notes.
Suggested menus for a low-salt diet, for example, are usually designed with Caucasian patients in mind and don’t always address the foods that African American or Hispanic patients may include in their regular diets. Lemons provides her patients with the general list of approved foods, but she also offers additional food lists that take into account a patient’s particular culture.
This is another example of how minority patients can be labeled as “noncompliant” when the real problem is that they simply could not overcome cultural barriers to their care, Lemons emphasizes. “If they don’t understand how to eat and take their medicine, they’re not in control of their ailment,” she says. “It really impacts the cost of health care when you have people who end up in the hospital over and over because they just don’t understand what they’re supposed to do.”
One of the Department of Veterans Affairs’ newest initiatives for increasing minority veterans’ access to culturally sensitive nursing care is the VA Travel Nurse Corps (TNC). Designed for RNs who prefer the flexibility and adventure of travel nursing, this program will establish an internal pool of nurses who can be available for temporary, short-term assignments at VA medical centers throughout the country. The TNC deployed its first nurse in December 2007.
Jacqueline E. Jackson, RN, MS, MBA, director of the TNC, says the new program is actively recruiting nurses from culturally diverse backgrounds. “[Minority] VA nurses bring not only cultural competence but respect and acceptance to the many culturally diverse patients under VA care,” she explains. “Nurses in the VA Travel Nurse Corps have an opportunity to travel the country working with a diverse VA patient population and a diverse VA workforce.”
For more information about the VA Travel Nurse Corps, visit www.travelnurse.va.gov.
Who Are Today’s Veterans?
Estimated U.S. Veterans Population: 23,532,000
Number of Total Enrollees in VA Health Care System (FY 2006): 7,900,000
Veteran Population by Race:
- White Non-Hispanic 80%
- Black Non-Hispanic 11%
- Hispanic 6%
- Other 3%
Veteran Population by Gender:
Percentage of Veteran Population Age 65 or Older: 39%
Source: Department of Veterans Affairs, October 25, 2007
For Native American nurses, many of their stories have been lost to the past. Scholars have generally paid scant attention to the lives and deeds of rural minority women, and few articles have been written about the early education of Native American nurses and their contributions to health care. The people of the Catawba Indian Nation use storytelling to keep their culture and the memory of their heroes alive. Consider this one such story, one such hero.
The Sage Memorial Hospital School of Nursing, known simply as “Sage Memorial,” operated from 1930–1953. It was the only nursing school ever opened for the sole purpose of educating Native American women as nurses.1 One of these nurses was Viola Elizabeth Garcia, a graduate of the Class of 1943.2 Viola’s life illuminates the struggles for education common among the women who attended Sage Memorial. Her contributions and experiences as a World War II nurse demonstrate the hardships encountered and outstanding contributions made by many of her fellow alumna.
By law and custom, most nursing schools were segregated by race before the passing of the Civil Rights laws of the 1960s. From the 1880s through the 1960s, most schools of nursing were comprised of either all white or all African American student bodies, leaving few opportunities for Native Americans, Asian Americans, or Hispanic Americans to obtain a nursing education.
The Board of National Missions of the Presbyterian Church was unique in its efforts to address this inequality. In 1901, the National Presbyterian Church opened the Ganado Mission on Navajo Nation land, in the northeast quadrant of Arizona, near the New Mexico, Colorado, and Utah borders, in the community of Ganado.
After a church and school were successfully operating at the Mission, the home missionaries turned their attention to health care.3 In 1929, Dr. Clarence Salsbury and his wife, Nurse Cora Salsbury, took over the mission work at Ganado. One of their first priorities was expanding the antiquated 12-bed hospital into a modern facility of 150 beds, an operating suite, a delivery suite, and a laboratory. This new hospital was named Sage Memorial Hospital after one of its largest benefactors and was accredited by the American College of Surgeons.
In order to staff the hospital with nurses, as well as to provide skilled employment opportunities for Native American women, the Salsburys opened Sage Memorial Hospital School of Nursing in 1930.4
The school opened while naysayers proclaimed no Native American woman would ever be up to the academic task of completing a Nightingale-based nursing education program. They also claimed these women, given their culture, would not be willing to interact with the sick or dying. Sage Memorial graduates proved these assumptions wrong.
Dr. Salsbury felt training Native American nurses was crucial. “They would be able to understand the patients as no white personnel ever could,” he said.1 Sage Memorial started small, with an entering class of two Navajo women: Adele Slivers and Ruth Henderson. They both graduated three years later and passed the Arizona State Board of Nursing Examinations. Their graduation exercises in 1933 were a festive event with scripture readings, vocal duets, a piano solo, and a pinning ceremony. Dignitaries including the Arizona governor, an Arizona State Board of Nursing member, and one of the chief Navajo medicine men praised the graduates and the school during the proceedings.3
As word and reputation of the school expanded among minority communities, the student body increased in number and diversity. By 1943, students from 28 tribes, including the Navajo, Kiowa, and Catawba; students who identified as Eskimo, Hawaiian, Spanish American, Cuban, and Mexican; and one Japanese student from a relocation camp were either enrolled or graduates of Sage Memorial.6 By all accounts, this unique experiment in multicultural education was a success.
In the 1930s and 1940s, such training and cultural exchange among Native Americans and other minority women was not found anywhere else in the United States. The nurses developed a camaraderie and commitment to their work that consistently earned them the highest marks on state licensing exams. The students lived in interracial cooperation while learning the nursing arts and sciences. The school’s stellar reputation drew the attention of white applicants—who were denied consideration because they had access to many other schools of nursing.1
Viola Elizabeth Garcia
Viola Elizabeth Garcia was born on April 12, 1919, in Sanford, Colorado, a poor, rural Mormon community home to approximately half the members of the Catawba Nation. Viola’s family was financially impoverished, but rich in family and culture. The older brothers, George and Labon, left school after completing the fourth and fifth grade to help their ailing father support the large family. Viola’s father was ill for much of her young life and died when Viola was only 11 years old, leaving behind 10 children for his wife to support.
Viola completed the ninth grade in Sanford, but due to the Great Depression, the public high school was closed. For the next three years, Viola tried desperately to complete her high school education by repeatedly applying for admission to the Bureau of Indian Affairs Haskell Boarding School in Lawrence, Kansas. Finally, she was admitted at 18 years old and completed her high school diploma in 1940 at the age of 21. Viola’s classes focused on cooking skills, sewing, home care, and arts. As graduation neared, she was offered full-time employment as a cook’s assistant on the Apache reservation in New Mexico, but Viola was determined to continue her education.2
With the guidance of the staff at Haskell Boarding School, Viola applied to several nursing programs but was only admitted to Sage Memorial. One such rejection stated that she was too old at 21 years of age to begin the nursing program. There was also a concern, as World War II loomed and U.S.-Japan relations became strained, that her Native American features would appear Japanese and frighten patients.6
The head mistress of Haskell wrote in a reference letter about Viola, “Whatever Viola decides to do, she does.” Several months after Viola enrolled at Sage Memorial, Dr. Salsbury personally wrote the Haskell headmistress asking if she had any other students like Viola, and if so, to please send them to his school.6
Studying at Sage Memorial
Applicants to Sage Memorial had to be unmarried high school graduates between 18–30 years of age. Their applications had to be accompanied by a health certificate, as well as four character references, with one being their pastor. Tuition was $100 for the first year with additional fees of $1 for laboratory courses, $0.50 for library use, and $3.50 for health fees. The hospital provided room, board, and laundry services. In addition to their course work, students tended the hospital floors eight hours a day, six days a week. However, students had time to relax outside of their rigorous classroom and clinical schedules, enjoying picnics, parties, movies, and glee club, as well as mandatory gym class and chapel.4
Although Viola was accepted to Sage Memorial, she was not sure that she could afford the tuition, fees, and living expenses. As the months progressed, Dr. Salsbury procured the funds to pay for all her education expenses except for personal items she needed to bring with her.6 According the 1940 catalog, all students had to supply for themselves the following: a bag for soiled clothing, rubbers or galoshes, toiletries, two fountain pens (one for red ink and one for blue), a watch with a second hand, an alarm clock, two standard-size loose-leaf notebooks, a napkin ring, and coat hangers.4 Viola’s eldest brother, George, gave her an entire month’s wages so she could buy the required watch with the second hand sweep. With her determination and supplies in tow, Viola began her three-year long education at Sage Memorial.6
Over the next three years, Viola and her fellow students not only studied the nursing curriculum but also spent many clinical hours on the hospital floors. They made and rolled their own patient bandages and folded disposable patient trash bags and slippers out of newspapers. Third-year students were expected to help teach the lower-level nursing students. Viola not only learned the nursing skills that she would use throughout her life, but she developed a deep devotion and admiration for the Navajo people. She even taught herself to speak Dine, the Navajo language.6
A nurse in practice
Though Viola grew up in the rural, remote, and poor town of Sanford, she was surprised to learn that her new community at Ganado was even more so. Patients were brought to the hospital on horseback and buckboard wagons, and sometimes by rattling old vehicles over rutted and narrow dirt roads. Many roads were so rough and rocky that they were impassable in wet and winter weather. The nursing students were expected to go on home visits with the nursing staff to the homes of the Navajo people, traditional dwellings known as hogans.7 They made these visits in buckboard wagons. Viola would write back to her mentor at Haskell Board School that these hogans were “loving and cozy homes.”6
Viola viewed success as the ability to provide for herself, and she felt her education was essential to achieving that level of self-reliance. Viola studied hard and was the 1943 class valedictorian. She was awarded a set of surgical instruments for her academic success.
In 1943 Viola took her Arizona nursing boards and returned home to Colorado to await the results. She had been worried because she did not have an additional $75 to retake the nursing board examination if she failed. One day a letter arrived addressed to Viola Garcia, R.N., and she knew she had passed. In fact, Viola received the highest test score in the entire state of Arizona. Viola’s academic and nursing success, however, was common among the students who graduated from Sage Memorial.
World War II
Not long after graduating from nursing school, Viola found herself working in Denver, Colorado, when President Roosevelt delivered an ominous speech. While the war efforts in Europe were drawing to a close, battles were still raging in the Pacific, and there might be a need to draft nurses into the military. Viola was told that if she volunteered for military service, she could select her location of duties. In January 1944, she enlisted in the United States Army Nurse Corps, requesting no surgical duties or overseas assignments. Within weeks of her enlistment, she was assigned to Camp Carson (now, Fort Carson, Colorado Springs, Colorado) in the surgical suite where she assisted with amputations from the war-wounded returning from the bitter winter campaign in Europe under General Patton. There were endless mounds of amputated ears, fingers, toes, hands, feet, arms, and legs that filled the air with putrid smells. Viola approached her supervisor and informed her of what she had requested: “No surgery and no overseas duties.” She was promptly informed, “Honey, you are in the Army now.”6
Within a few months, First Lt. Viola Garcia shipped out from Camp Carson to Los Angeles, where she, along with 600 other nurses, embarked on the largest U.S. Army Hospital Ship at the time, the USAHS Marigold, with an unknown destination. After two weeks, the ship arrived in Hawaii, and 300 of the 600 nurses disembarked, but Viola’s group remained on board. After leaving Hawaii, ship’s public address system announced their destination: Tokyo, still a heavy battle area as the war in the Pacific raged on. “My heart just dropped, I was so frightened,” Viola recalled. The U.S. military was fighting Japanese troops on many Pacific Islands and an invasion of the Japanese mainland was thought to be imminent. The costs in human life for both sides would be high.6
The ship was under the command of General Douglas McArthur, who over saw the military operations in the Pacific. The 300 nurses in Viola’s grouping were to be part of the U.S. invasion actions in Japan. Military leaders expected heavy casualties among those nurses during the invasion operations; the 300 nurses left behind in Hawaii would be their replacements.
Under international rules of combat, hospital ships were not to be attacked at sea, and thus were to be lit up at night and clearly marked with a red cross. Not long out at sea, the Japanese attacked one such marked ship, and the Marigold was immediately ordered to go into complete darkness. As the lights were put out, those in surgery raced to cover the windows of surgeries in progress. A frightening silence fell upon the crew as the Marigold steamed along in darkness on its way across the Pacific.
The Marigold stopped in the Philippines, and the nurses were allowed to disembark for a few days before the ship went to Japan. While docked there, however, the United States dropped the atomic bombs on Japan, and World War II was brought to a close. Yet, the Marigold continued on to Tokyo, but this time with a different mission. The USAHS Marigold was the first U.S. ship to enter Yokahoma Bay after the Japanese ended the war, and it was in Tokyo Bay where General McArthur accepted the formal surrender of the Japanese on the USS Missouri. That day the sea was filled with ships and the air was filled with flyover planes celebrating the end of the Second World War.
Rebuilding in Tokyo
Over the next eight months, Viola was stationed in Tokyo at the 42nd General Hospital. She treated survivors of the Bataan Death Camp and Corregidor Island (a military stronghold in the Philippines). The hospital had five surgical rooms that had been stripped of all equipment by the Japanese at the end of the war. They were filled with soot and rubble. Several Army nurses ranking higher than Viola were assigned the task of restoring these rooms to their full function. According to Viola, none of the higher-ranking nurses could deal with such an overwhelming task; each time, Viola was asked to “fill in.” After a third nurse was left in tears at the monumental task, Viola was asked to take on the responsibilities as acting head surgical nurse.6
Viola walked into surgical suites devoid of the equipment necessary for performing operations—no surgical tables, no IV stands, no surgical tools. She remembered entering the rooms: “I just wanted to cry too and said to myself, ‘Oh Lordy, what am I going to do?'” But Viola went on to do what she had always done—she rolled up her sleeves and got to work. Viola called in her military crew and ordered them to wash and scrub all the rooms from top to bottom. When that was done, she began looking for equipment for her surgical rooms, including salvaging items from the hospital ship.6 She even taught herself to speak Japanese, just as she learned to speak Dine as a nursing student.
First Lt. Garcia’s work in Tokyo was supported by her own ethic of care, as well as the training she received at Sage Memorial Hospital School of Nursing. From those days following the war until her death in 2004, Viola continued caring for others, marrying Herbert Schneider, another member of the U.S. Army, and raising three daughters. Her legacy, one of determination and pride, compassion and grace, lives on.
- Salsbury, C.G., & Hughes, P. (1969) The Salsbury Story. Tucson: The University of Arizona Press. 152–153.
- People of Catawba official website, “Life of Viola Schneider.” Cynthia Walsh. http://www.catawba-people.com/viola_schneider_eulogy.htm. (Accessed 2011).
- Trennart, R. (2003). “Sage Memorial Hospital and the Nation’s First All-Indian School of Nursing.” The Journal of Arizona History, vol. 44, 353.
- Prospectus of School of Nursing, (Ganado, Arizona: Sage Memorial Hospital, n.d), 1-11; Presbyterian Historical Society, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Ganado Mission Records.
- “Excerpts from Statement re: School of Nursing, Sage Memorial Hospital, Ganado, Arizona sent in on January 3, 1939.” Document from Ganado Mission Records, Presbyterian Historical Society; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
- Viola Garcia, personal comm. with author.
- Salsbury, C.G. (1932). “Medical Work in Navajoland.” The American Journal of Nursing, 32(4), 415.
We often say nurses are on the “front lines” of health care, meaning they work closely with patients and become intimately acquainted with the issues those patients face. And while hospitals can seem a lot like trenches sometimes, they are a far cry from the military operations taking place worlds away.
Here, two military nurses share their stories, from the stress of coordinating care in a combat zone to dealing with prejudice and personal growth, all while caring for the men and women serving in the U.S. armed forces.
Joseph D. Hacinas, R.N., M.S.N., C.N.S., P.H.N.
Lieutenant Commander, United States Navy Nurse Corps Last year, 2011, marked my 10th year as a nurse. Those years have been marked by personal and professional accomplishments. However, this was not always the case. In fact, my nursing career was almost never a career to begin with.
After graduating with honors, I had a great sense of pride and confidence. Perhaps I had too much self-confidence. As a result, I failed miserably with my nursing board exam. Worse, I blamed everything and anything but myself. Having failed this exam almost cost me my job and the opportunity to become a commissioned officer in the U.S. Navy. My mentality relied heavily on the fact that I was going to be a nurse. I intended to be an outstanding nurse, just like the hundreds of outstanding nurses of Asian/Filipino descent who came before me.
Yet, I assumed I could pass the nursing board exam without really studying or working for it. Well, lesson learned. An expensive lesson, I should add. Had I not eventually passed my nursing board exam, I would have been looking at an employer recoupment of about $20,000. Ouch! The good news is that I was able to overcome this barrier just in time.
I began my career in a military nursing at the Naval Medical Center in San Diego, and my goals were simple: learn as much as possible and don’t make mistakes with potentially dire consequences (e.g., a medication error). Not so different from civilian nursing, really!
I remember that rookie year vividly. Looking back, I am still not sure how I was able to succeed in such a demanding work environment. I was assigned as a staff nurse at a 28-bed medical-surgical unit. By far, we were the busiest nursing unit in our 250-bed facility. Every day was non-stop action. It felt like my heart rate increased by at least 10 beats per minute every time I set foot in the unit. It seemed like we never slowed down—and the tempo was dizzying. I would typically have six patients with an assistant. For any given shift, my duties would consist of AM care, vitals, assessment, medications, and procedures. I also had to coordinate MRI visits, CT consults, and X-ray availability while calling for discharge medications in pharmacy. No matter how physically and mentally prepared I tried to be, it was hard to maintain a sense of control. There were times that I was so stressed I literally made myself sick. Basic nursing skills such as prioritization of patients and critical-thinking skills were learned on the go. I wouldn’t exactly call it chaos. But it was close.
Yet, as crazy as it may sound, I actually did not mind it one bit. It’s the truth. One of the reasons was that I had great mentors around me. I used to look around our nursing unit and realized my nursing colleagues were more than willing to help, no matter what. Perhaps it was our sense of teamwork. Or it could have been our dedication to military nursing and our patients. Whatever it was, it didn’t take me long to realize that I had made the right career move. Unlike my civilian nursing colleagues, I have had the unique opportunity to care for patients who have served and are serving this great nation. It is a feeling like no other. To come in on a daily basis and know that I am part of something meaningful is incredible. This couldn’t have been more evident than after the events of September 11, 2001.
I was actually on my way to work when I heard of the terrorist attacks. Not knowing much at the time, I just remember thinking that my nursing skills were about to become a commodity, whether I was ready or not. It was a fearful and uncertain time for everyone, almost surreal to think that such an attack was even humanly possible. I just remember hearing from my supervisors, “Be ready.” There was a good chance most of us were bound for deployment overseas. Soldiers, marines, sailors, and airmen were counting on us to provide the best patient care possible under all circumstances. As it turns out, I was actually one of the nurses that ended up staying behind during the early stages of the war. Nevertheless, it was professionally fulfilling. It provided a great way for me to contribute. For the next few years, I found myself in various nursing assignments, from California to Japan. I have been blessed to grow professionally and gain a better perspective of my overall purpose as a military nurse.
Like some people find their niche in a nursing specialty like pediatrics or oncology, I have found that being a military nurse has its own advantages. I work with an outstanding team. From physicians to social workers, it is a rewarding experience to collaborate and gain a sense of unity. This is especially important as nurses and the rest of the health care team are tasked to care for patients with complex disease processes. More importantly, my service to active-duty patients and beneficiaries truly defines who I am as a nurse. Whether I am teaching a dependent spouse about healthier eating habits or holding a patient’s hand and praying with him before a major surgery, I am there to give it my all. Because, chances are, they would do the same for me. And that alone is what matters most. In a sense, we are more than just a family. We are united as one.
Of course, to say my military nursing career has been nothing but great experiences wouldn’t be entirely accurate. I can recall one incident when caring for a retired military member. He rang his call bell for assistance. When I walked in to his room, he said, “I’m sorry, but I had asked for a nurse.” I politely answered that I would be the one taking care of him for the night. He quickly replied, “No, no, no. I asked for a nurse—the one who has blonde hair, blue eyes, and wears a nice skirt.” Obviously, I could have reacted in a negative manner. Rather, I chose to remain calm and respectfully informed him that not all nurses are females with blonde hair. Somewhat perplexed, the patient quickly changed the topic and turned his attention to the television. I did not feel anger towards that particular patient; all I could think of was trying to find ways to help him understand the evolving nature of nursing, which now consists of men as well as Asian/Filipino nurses like me.
As troubling as that patient’s reaction seemed at first, I truly felt he came to realize that male nurses were more than able and capable of caring for patients like him. Though he never said so directly, I just had a feeling. And if nothing else, I know my serving as his nurse was a concrete example that contradicted his former world-view.
The common thread
Nursing is an ever-evolving profession. And changes in our health care delivery system will happen, regardless. The past 10 years of nursing have taught me valuable lessons. For one, I have learned to remain humble. I have also learned to not take things personally when it comes to patient comments. Granted, some comments are downright ignorant and hurtful. But, I believe there is a common thread and human decency in everyone. As a military nurse, I am proud to be a part of their lives. In particular, I am proud to know that I have been given ample opportunities to touch lives and care for my patients. I never imagined I would be in the position to make an impact on someone’s life. Personally, those few minutes of comforting patients during the worst of times have turned to a lifetime of personal and professional satisfaction.
Yet, as with any profession, nursing is not for everybody. I have friends and colleagues who left nursing. I think some of the more common reasons for doing so were the stress of the patient workload and the lack of support from nursing leaders. Being a minority nurse, my advice is to truly and honestly evaluate one’s dedication and intention before committing to nursing. Nursing is a great and well-respected profession, but it does come with its challenges. For example, there have been times when I feared for my safety when caring for patients with developmental delays and mental instability. In addition, minority nurses may still encounter racial and ethnic stereotypes.
Once, a patient bluntly asked if all Filipino nurses speak Tagalog among one another in front of non-Filipino patients. Taken aback, I informed her that no, that is not the case. They only speak their native language during their off-duty time. In another instance, when reporting to my new supervisor (who happened to be a minority), she said, “I can already see two things that are against you. You’re an Asian and a male.” In the U.S. Navy Nurse Corps, we value diversity and strongly feel that concept results in a better work environment for all of our valued staff members, regardless of their race or color. Yet, we, as a health care organization, also understand that we are at risk for discrimination. The good news is that we have a solid support structure that enhances equal opportunity for all.
I learned there remains a small group of people in the nursing world who are who they are and believe what they believe, and there’s no changing them. More importantly, I learned the value of self-discipline while serving my patients at the most honorable level. Ignorance and immaturity exist in this world, but we, as minority nurses, have more than the power and ability to achieve the highest levels in long, fulfilling careers. We should not and cannot allow minor setbacks to dictate who we can become as professionals—we are simply too valuable to the profession. I have always seen nursing as a rewarding career, personally and professionally. Joining the nursing ranks seemed like a no-brainer. And, in general, my expectations of camaraderie, mentorship, and professional development have been met.
Who knows what the next 10 years will bring? I may pursue other interests such as golfing and traveling across the globe. I may even find myself teaching at a local university. I am okay with the unknown that lies ahead when it comes to my career as a military nurse. The one thing that I am certain about is that I will continue to strive in providing the best patient care. The ability to make a difference in patients’ lives means a lot to me. And sometimes, that is all you need. Here’s to another 10 years!
Artemus Armas, R.N., M.S.H.S, B.S.N, C.E.N.
Major, United States Air Force, North Carolina
I have been an Air Force nurse since January 2002. Before that I was in the National Guard and Army Reserve for 17 years before I went on active duty. In the Guard I was an Army Infantry officer.
During my fourth deployment, I was at the Camp Bastion Joint Operating Base in the Helmand Province of Afghanistan, the fiercest combat zone in Afghanistan at the time I was there. I was in charge of the Aeromedical Evacuation Liaison Team (AELT) at Camp Bastion Joint Operating Base Hospital. The team consisted of a flight nurse (myself), a medical service corps officer, and two radio technicians. We were primarily responsible for providing fixed-wing aeromedical evacuation for NATO forces and sometimes civilians. The team also helped anyone, including civilians, who may need to be seen by a specialist not stationed at Camp Bastion.
The AELT’s key function is transferring patients, such as those with traumatic amputations or other combat injuries, who need more specialized treatment to a different facility. The hospital relies on the AELT to coordinate the patient’s transfer with a medical aircrew (Aeromedical Evacuation Crew, or AEC), which flies the patient from point A to point B. Once the patient is picked up by the AEC and en route to a higher level of medical care, the AELT advises the staff and hospital awaiting the patient’s arrival.
A secondary mission for AELT is providing emergency medical assistance to local nationals and Afghan National Security Theater hospitals. Camp Bastion is a joint hospital, meaning whichever nation’s military is in charge of the hospital collaborates with the other countries working there. When I was there we had the Danish, British, and U.S. military.
Camp Bastion is a Role 3 hospital. Role hospitals break down as follows: Role 1 hospitals are assigned to areas providing basic or initial care; Role 2 are facilities with some surgical capabilities; Role 3 facilities can support trauma care, surgical procedures, and burn care; and Role 4 is advanced medical center care. As the lead medical person on the AELT, I made sure patients were properly prepared for flight. I also trained coalition force physicians, nurses, and medical technicians regarding approved devices, brands, and materials, including pumps, chest tube drainage systems, and traction devices.
I also taught hospital leadership on how our system works, the process of getting a patient to a higher echelon of care; this education included Army, Navy, and Marines. While at Camp Bastion I authored and implemented new policies on moving patients through the theater hospital systems, called the Patient Movement Requirement (PMR). Fortunately, implementing these procedures cut down patient movements errors by 60%.
The AELT took the lead in teaching hospital personnel how to sanitize patients before entering the hospital. We sanitized over 500 ally and enemy casualties (patients), meaning we removed any guns, ammo, or explosives before injured personnel entered the hospital. This was for security, assuring nothing happened to hospital staff and patients.
Through these initiatives and two published articles, my goal was to educate AE crews as much as possible so they would not stress when they saw unfamiliar medications or procedures, while giving a report for patients being moved by the AECs. I also included a quick reference sheet of drugs used by the coalition facility and its U.S. equivalent. By the end of this deployment, my four-person team had moved 313 patients, including 102 battle injuries.
ICU in the sky
On my second deployment that year, I had a five-day notice to get my bags and go, due to an injured person who was deployed. I went to Southeast Asia, where I was in charge of the Aeromedical Evacuation Operations Team. I managed up to eight Aeromedical Evacuation Crews and two Critical Care Air Transport Teams (CCATT).
CCATT is basically an airborne intensive care unit. The team consists of a physician, nurse, and respiratory technician; they transport the most critical patients with the assistance of the AEC. I needed to make sure the crews were ready to fly 24 hours a day, seven days a week, so we could pick up patients in the Area of Responsibility, which covered seven countries. I planned and coordinated training as needed for the crews, from medical guidelines to how to use specialized communication equipment. Mentoring was also a big part of the job, including how to deal with crewmembers and patients, career planning, and writing military reports.
Another big aspect was scheduling AECs, by following regulations regarding when crews could and could not fly. Crews need enough time to recoup and rest to be able to perform their duties on the plane and provide high-quality patient care. Scheduling can sometimes be hectic, because you have crews both on call and on missions.
I also coordinated over two tons of Patient Movement Items to the AOR, while my team also maintained and managed 73 Portable Therapeutic Liquid Oxygen units (patient oxygen). This optimized five AE units and kept them fully mission capable. While there I functioned as a crewmember when personnel were unable to fly due to injury or illness. I flew three missions as part of an AEC and pulled 120 hours of alert status, resulting in the transfer of 18 coalition casualties to advanced care. During increased operations we relocated 12 Aeromedical Evacuation Crew members and two CCATTs to Bagram, Afghanistan, increasing Operation Enduring Freedom capabilities by 20%. The efforts during that time lead our team to win the Expeditionary Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron “Team of the Month.” While deployed, the team safely evacuated over 400 wounded personnel on 180 sorties.
The most important result of all that I do is making sure patients, whether military or civilian, receive the best, most comprehensive care possible throughout the AE system. You need everything: great patient care, equipment, leadership, management, and more. If you just focus on one, the system will not be optimal. It is crucial to be well-rounded on all aspects of the AE system. I am honored that my commanders have seen qualities in me to give me the opportunity to succeed in the positions where I have been placed. My philosophy is to do what is best for the patient and those who take care of them; everything else will fall in place.
While deployed as an AELT, I lead our team with a program called “Soldiers’ Angels” (www.soldiersangels.org). We would collect items such as books, food, soap, clothes, music, and blankets from people throughout the United States to give to personnel living in austere conditions and patients who needed supplies in the hospital. We ended up distributing over $50,000 in products to over 500 patients, 24 units, and 12 Forward Operating Bases.
Recently, I was honored with two awards: The Air Force Flight Nurse of the Year and Nurse of the Year. When my commander informed me I won, I was shocked. It is an honor just to win one. I had learned my commander had put a Flight Nurse of the Year package in for me when I was deployed to Southeast Asia, but I never expected to win. I gave her my information and didn’t think of it again until I won. It was a shock to both of us when I also won the Nurse of the Year. However, though I say “I” in describing all these events, I truly could not have done it alone. The team makes it happen—I just tried to lead them in the right direction.
Getting the opportunity to be a flight nurse has been the most satisfying job I have had thus far in my nursing career. Being a flight nurse in the Air Force has given me opportunities to be an effective leader and make an immediate difference for those I have taken care of that I would not have had as a nurse in a clinic or hospital. Like the rest of the nation, the Air Force needs more nurses and the AF Flight Nurse community needs even more, as a specialty. I would recommend this life to anyone who likes adventure, leadership opportunities, and enjoys taking care of our wounded warriors.
When Lance Corporal David Coleman enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps, he knew there was a possibility of being injured on the job-especially when he was deployed to Iraq. Unfortunately, that possibility became reality last September when his company was attacked by an improvised explosive device (IED). “The IED blast took off 80% of my calf and left me with a lot of damage on my left and right leg[s],” Coleman told National Public Radio’s “Talk of the Nation.”
Although fast-acting field care helped stop the bleeding and ultimately saved both limbs, Coleman faces a long road of rehabilitation. Fortunately, delivering top-notch health care for the nation’s returning military veterans is what the Veterans Health Administration (VHA), a division of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), does best.
In the 80-plus years since Congress first established the U.S. Veterans’ Bureau in 1921-the department has undergone several name changes throughout its history-the VHA has become one of the largest health care delivery systems in the nation. It is present in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, Guam and other U.S. territories, and even in the Philippines. All qualifying U.S. veterans-currently more than 25 million-have access to the system’s 158 hospitals, 854 ambulatory care and community-based clinics, 132 nursing homes and more than 40 residential rehabilitation treatment programs.
Although not all veterans use its services, VHA facilities treated more than 4.8 million patients in 2003, including 742,000 inpatients. This helps explain why Congress granted the VA $29.1 billion for its fiscal year 2004 health care budget.
Because the VHA is such an extensive medical system, it’s the largest employer of nurses in the world, with a total of over 60,000 RNs, advanced practice nurses, LPNs/LVNs and nursing assistants. It is also one of the nation’s largest employers of minority nurses, if not the largest.
Serving Emerging Needs
A common misconception about the VHA is that all of its patients are veterans from World War II and, therefore, VA nurses spend their days caring for geriatric patients. Of course, this population segment does represent a significant percentage of the patient census, but it is by no means the only demographic. VA medical services are open to veterans from all military branches and any military operation the United States has participated in, including the Korean War, Vietnam, both Gulf Wars and Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan.
“Even as the WWII vets are declining in numbers, there are new needs emerging among the younger vets from Desert Storm and Enduring Freedom,” says Mary Raymer, RN, MA, CNAA, a nursing education program manager at the VA Healthcare Staff Development and Retention Office in New Orleans.
Age, however, is only one differentiating characteristic. The vets’ racial, ethnic and cultural representation is equally varied. In fact, the VHA’s patient base is a microcosm of the general population in terms of diversity, cultural influences and constantly evolving demographic changes. “The VHA picks up where the military leaves off,” comments Rose Paradis, RN, MS, CHE, program director in the Office of Nursing Service at VA headquarters in Washington, D.C.
Traditionally, African Americans have been the VA’s largest minority population, but that is slowly changing as more Hispanics, Asian Americans and American Indians retire from active duty. Additionally, women are emerging as a significant subgroup.
“Especially with the new conflict [in Iraq] underway, we are seeing more younger men and women [as patients],” states Thomas Badger, BSN, RN, MS, a nurse recruiter at the Atlanta VA Medical Center. “In fact, we’re seeing an increasing number of female patients, so now we have a women’s health specialty at our facility.”
These trends have all affected the VHA’s approach to health care delivery. “Overall, there is more of an emphasis on meeting the unique needs of the different ethnic groups than ever before,” says Raymer. “That is in harmony with what’s going on in health care in general. Providers are paying more attention to unique cultural and ethnic differences and how they impact treatment.”
Indeed, most VHA facilities now include a cultural liaison on patients’ treatment teams to address any pertinent issues that may impact the effectiveness of their care. Raymer explains, “This staff person is a patient advocate and is in the loop from the initial assessment to make sure cultural needs are met. That could include anything from patient education materials produced in a bilingual format to accommodating special religious or dietary needs.”
Above-Average Workforce Diversity
Perhaps not so surprising is the fact that the VHA workforce-and its nursing staff in particular-is as diverse as its patient mix. “The VA has more ethnic diversity and male nurses than much of the private sector,” notes Jacqueline E. Jackson, MSN, RN, MBA, an African-American nurse who is a recruiter at the VA Southern Nevada Healthcare System in Las Vegas.
And the numbers back this up. According to the VHA’s Web site, more than half of the agency’s total workforce is female and more than one third are African Americans, Hispanics, Asian Americans/Pacific Islanders or American Indians/Alaska Natives. In the nursing ranks, the statistics are similarly impressive.
“In general terms, men comprise 6% of the country’s RN workforce, but in the VA system, they account for almost 15% of the nursing staff,” says Raymer. “As you can see, that’s more than twice [the national average]. And that’s also the scenario with most ethnic groups. In the VA, African Americans make up almost 15% of the nursing ranks, compared to only 5% in the overall nursing workforce. Hispanics comprise 6% of the VA nursing staff but only 2% of the general RN population. All of these groups have increased their presence at the VA facilities during the last three years.”
One reason for this success, according to Raymer and others, is the low turnover rate at many VA hospitals and community clinics.
While many private sector facilities find nurse retention a challenge, VHA nurses tend to plan their careers around the organization. “When you come to the VA, you’re not just coming for a job, you’re coming for a career,” asserts Jackson.
“That’s a reflection of the work environment and the fact that we’re sensitive and open to a diverse work force,” says Raymer, who has been with the VA for more than 20 years.
“Women, minorities and men all realize that once they get into the VA, there are great opportunities for a career,” adds Badger, who joined the agency four years ago after completing a 24-year military career.
Emphasis on Innovation
Additionally, nurses who choose careers with the VHA find the variety of clinical specialties within the system very appealing. With the exception of obstetrics and pediatrics, the VHA offers a full range of medical services and practice settings, including medical/surgical, intensive care, psychiatric, spinal cord injury, geriatric and hemodialysis units, among others. VA nurses also work in such settings as rehabilitation centers, organ transplant centers, outpatient clinics, day treatment programs and even home-based care.
“There has been an overarching movement toward a community-based outpatient model of care [at VHA], similar to what’s going on in health care in general,” notes Raymer. “With [advances] in technology and providers’ ability to do more things on an out-patient basis, there is decreasing need for long hospital stays.”
Nurses new to the environment are often surprised-and impressed-by the advanced technology and pro-cedures found on VA nursing units. In fact, it’s a myth that VA facilities lack the technical capabilities of the larger, private sector teaching hospitals.
“There were three things that drew me to the VA: the patients, the people and the technology,” says Badger. “People who don’t know about the VA first-hand think we’re behind the times. But a number of them end up saying, ‘Wow, I never believed the VA was so technologically advanced.'”
In fact, the VA has long been a health care innovator. Over the years, VA researchers have played key roles in the development of the cardiac pacemaker, the CT scan, radioimmunoassay and improvements in artificial limbs. VA clinical trials have tested the efficacy of new treatments for tuberculosis, schizophrenia and high blood pressure. Research is so important to the department that more than $400 million of its medical budget is earmarked for this purpose. Plus, the National Institutes of Health, other government agencies and pharmaceutical companies have contributed another $656 million to support the more than 10,000 research projects currently being conducted at more than 100 VA medical centers.
The benefits of these investigative inquiries certainly filter down to the bedside, where nurses can apply the advancements to their own skill sets. “Young nurses who want to be on the cutting edge of innovation want to be in this environment,” says Jackson, who’s been with the agency for more than 10 years.
“Our computer system is second to none. We even have information technology students from the local university come study our system. We demonstrate for them how we use high tech to provide quality care.”
VA Nursing: The Next Generation
These days, the VHA is facing the same nursing shortage as its private sector peers. The current VA workforce is aging-at least one-third of its employees are over the age of 50, and only 6% are younger than age 31. With that in mind, the department is reaching out to local communities as well as the national marketplace to inform a new generation of nurses about the career opportunities today’s VHA offers.
“Our facilities are well staffed, but we have to look at who’s eligible to replace retiring nurses,” says Paradis. “Each facility looks at its needs across the organization and various occupation categories.”
Although the VHA is a national system, individual facilities recruit and hire their own staffs. “We’re dealing with a real nursing shortage and we have to be competitive to attract nurses,” says Jackson. “Our community [in Southern Nevada] is rapidly growing-we’re planning to open a new hospital within the next five years-and we have to be extremely aggressive. Every employee is a potential recruiter.”
While word of mouth seems to be one of the more successful recruiting tools, the agency is also expanding its efforts by connecting with professional nursing associations. “We have exhibits at nursing associations’ national meetings,”
Raymer explains. “We also target historically black, Hispanic and tribal colleges to stimulate contact with minority students. When you encounter students who have experience in the VA, they give the most compelling testimonies. The more students involved in the system the better, because they recruit themselves.
“Our intention is to have widespread national recruitment for nurses,” she continues. “But we also want to spread the message of what VA care is about.”
Ultimately, that comes down to giving the nations’ veterans the best possible care by employing the most diverse and qualified nursing professionals. “The patients and their families you meet on the job are what makes the difference,” says Jackson.
For More Information About Careers in VA Nursing
Department of Veterans Affairs Placement Service
1555 Poydras Street, Suite 1971
New Orleans, LA 70112
Email: [email protected]
Web site: www.vacareers.com
Commander (CDR) , RN, an officer in the U.S. Navy Nurse Corps, doesn’t sugarcoat what it took to reach officer rank in three different branches of the military, obtain two post-graduate degrees with plans to get a doctorate, and be awarded the Purple Heart for her service in Iraq, all while remaining a dedicated wife and mother. “It took hard work, determination and support from my family to get where I am today,” she declares.
Before entering the military, Langlais worked as a civilian nurse after graduating from Villanova University College of Nursing in Villanova, Pennsylvania. Her career path as a military nurse began in the U.S. Air Force Nurse Corps in 1988 and has followed a uniquely winding course over the past 17 years. Langlais served four years in the Air Force, five years in the Army and has been in the Navy for eight years.
“I’ve been blessed to be able to take my skills and use them in the military,” she says. “I wanted to travel and use my nursing skills, so I have the best of both worlds. The pay and educational opportunities in the military were [vastly superior to what was available in] the civilian sector. The military trained me and gave me the opportunity to utilize my training in a proper setting.”
CDR Langlais believes her family and faith have been paramount in her success, including her recent service in Iraq as a combat nurse. The mother of five children, including six-year-old twins, Langlais explains that her family supports her career without hesitancy. “My husband is a Navy engineer, so he has a clear understanding of what [this life is like]. He is retiring in January 2007 and I will complete my service in 2011.”
During her long and varied career in the military, Langlais has worked in many areas of nursing, including the ER, oncology, critical care and combat trauma units. Today she draws on her experience as both a civilian nurse and a military nurse to help other Navy nurses make the transition back to civilian life. “I’m on a core staff that assists nurses and helps them use the skills and experiences they have from being in the Navy in the ‘real world,’” she says.
In the Line of Fire
In February 2006 CDR Langlais went to Iraq, where she found herself serving as the only African American senior combat nurse in the town of Al Taqaddum, on the outskirts of Al Fallujah. During her five-and-a half months there, she worked in combat trauma care, serving many severely wounded patients.
“I saw a lot of people die. I saw a lot of severe injuries. That’s what happens in wars,” she says matter-of-factly. “There is a difference between witnessing trauma as a civilian nurse and as a combat nurse. Civilian nurses will see patients come in with gunshot wounds, and it’s hard. But in a war you see wounds from explosions, and human bodies so damaged. Our medical technology hasn’t advanced far enough to keep up with these types of injuries. I prayed to God for guidance on how to care for these people.”
On April 7, CDR Langlais was coming out of the galley when she was hit by the second of four rounds of mortar blasts. “The base I was on was very close to Habbaniyah and it was very busy with insurgents day and night,” she says. “Through intelligence, the insurgents learned that the base was highly populated.” Fortunately, she survived the blast and no other military personnel were injured.
Although she has now recovered from her injury, she still feels its lingering effects. “I have damage to my face,” she explains. “The injury is from my cheekbone down past my chin and neck. I went through exploratory surgery after the attack. I have no feeling at all on the right side of my face due to nerve damage. Whether or not I ever recover feeling depends on if the nerves regenerate.”
In a remarkable display of bravery and dedication to her duty as a combat nurse, CDR Langlais refused to leave work after she was injured in the blast. “There were too many junior nurses there who needed me,” she recounts. “The night of my injury, we had a patient who was having an allergic reaction to medication and I gave him care to help him breathe. They weren’t too happy with me for continuing to work, but I wasn’t going to let him die in front of me.”
She stayed on in Iraq for three months after her injury. “I was treated and recovered in a combat zone. I came home two months early and experienced a lot of guilt because of that.”
People who know Lenora Langlais say this dedication to putting the needs of others before her own is typical of her. “She is an inspiration simply because she cares,” says Chaplain Terrell Byrd, who served with CDR Langlais in Iraq. “She cares about people, her job, her profession and her family. She is an inspiration because she came to Iraq as a volunteer. She didn’t have to at her level, but she chose to be at the front of the fight. As a wife and mother of five, I can only imagine her difficulty in making that decision. Even when she was wounded she decided to stay to set an example [of courage] for her young corpsmen.”
A Humble Hero
Despite everything, CDR Langlais feels that “overall, being in Iraq was a wonderful experience.” Does she consider herself a hero? “No,” she says simply. “I consider myself a naval officer who is a nurse.”
But that’s not what the Navy thought. Upon returning home to Camp Pendleton, Calif., CDR Langlais was awarded the Purple Heart for her courage under fire.
The Purple Heart is a combat decoration awarded under the name of the President of the United States to members of the Armed Forces who have been wounded or killed by “an instrument of war in the hands of the enemy.” It is the oldest military decoration currently used in the world and it was the first to be made available to common soldiers. The Purple Heart originated in 1782 during the Revolutionary War and was reestablished by the War Department in the 1930s. The idea of honoring American soldiers for bravery in the face of war is credited to the nation’s first President, George Washington, who wrote: “Not only instances of unusual gallantry but also of extraordinary fidelity and essential service in any way shall meet with due reward.”
That description is a perfect fit for CDR Langlais. “While deployed and in her personal time she rendered the personal touch,” Chaplain Byrd says. “In Al Taqaddum, during her tenure, I don’t know of anyone who did not know her name. There were those who would stop to say ‘thank you’ to her for the time she took with an injured soldier, sailor, marine or airman. During very difficult and long medical procedures she took time to explain what was happening to the military member. CDR Langlais is a natural leader who embodies all that is best of the naval service and the healing arts.”
Through it all, she remains humble. “I am blessed,” she says. “God was watching my back that day. My head could have been blown off. But I survived my injury, I can speak and my face is fine. I served my country, took one for the country and lived to talk about it. I’m grateful for that.”
Despite being wounded, CDR Langlais is still willing to return to Iraq if she were to receive the call. “I would go back,” she declares. “I’d pray about it and discuss it with my family, but I am willing to serve my country again.”
The Face of Diversity
When the U.S. Navy is looking for a nurse who embodies dedication and hard work, they turn to someone like CDR Langlais. She was chosen in 2005 to be featured in the Navy’s recruitment advertising campaign to be the face of the Navy Nurse Corps.
“It was a selection process that included quite a few candidates,” she explains. “They picked me because they thought I had the most appealing personality and smile and I was truly living what the ad represents.”
CDR Langlais is a model in every sense of the word–not only in the Navy ads, but also a role model for others who hope to follow in her footsteps. She travels to universities around the country to recruit other minority applicants into Navy nursing. “I’m hoping that my presence is helping to make a difference, and it does hold people accountable. I lead by example,” she says. “Unfortunately, minorities still experience the glass ceiling. We see where we can go, but we can’t always get there.”
The road to personal and professional success is often paved with adversity, and CDR Langlais has been no exception. As an African American woman she has felt the pain of discrimination. But by continuing to reach higher in educational and professional pursuits, as well as serving her country, she has literally become the picture of success.
“Being the only African American nurse and female officer on the entire base came with a price,” she says of her service in Iraq. “It was a challenge for people to be open-minded enough to take leadership guidance from me. I was labeled as confrontational and mean. If you’re anything other than [the stereotype of] a video vixen or basketball star, they can’t handle you. In their mind you’re being confrontational. But other people’s small-mindedness is not my problem. I never allow those issues to interfere with my patient care.”
What advice does CDR Langlais have for other minority nurses who are considering a career as a military nurse? First, she recommends that you “really do your research” on the nursing profession as well as on the particular branch of the military that you’re interested in. “Interview recruiters and ask lots and lots of questions,” she says. “And then ask more questions and keep asking questions again and again. Check out the recruitment office after hours when they’re not expecting you to be there.”
Her next piece of advice is: Figure out for yourself what you really want from your career and your life and then set goals accordingly. Because she knows firsthand that minorities entering the field often face barriers and obstacles that their white counterparts don’t, she stresses the importance of developing a strong support network. “Your mentor doesn’t always have to look like you,” she adds, “but it sure does help.”
She also emphasizes the crucial role that professional education has played in her success. “Education and training has been paramount in my development as an officer and a nurse. As a teacher, I love to help patients understand the importance of health care. I love seeing that light go on in people when they ‘get it.’”
Ask her Navy colleagues what kind of a role model CDR Lenora Langlais is and their faces light up, too. “There is no greater example of dignity, honor and compassion I can think of than her,” Chaplain Byrd says. “To aspiring nurses she illustrates what it means to be a perfectionist. She gives to them the pride that can only come from a professional with a 17-year career of service. CDR Langlais challenges them and others to not settle for good, but to strive for great. By example, she teaches them to excel in their educational, professional and personal goals.”
What’s an African American neonatal intensive care nurse doing in the middle of Kandahar City, Afghanistan? Teaching neonatal resuscitation protocols (NRP), what else!
During my deployment to Afghanistan in 2005 in support of Operation Enduring Freedom VI, I had the opportunity to teach NRP to local nurse-midwives in Kandahar. I had been assigned to the 249th General Hospital Alpha Detachment as an adult intensive care nurse. After months of caring for a variety of sick patients, I jumped at the chance to teach a class. I was excited about getting the opportunity to meet Afghan nurses and learn about their practice.
I had been invited to teach the class by Dr. Holland, a pediatrician assigned to the 173rd Army Battalion out of Italy. He had taught a previous NRP course in Kandahar and felt that having a female nurse assist with the teaching would be beneficial to the students.
The class I taught was coordinated by a Canadian physician who worked with both the coalition forces and local nationals. The goal of the course was to familiarize Afghan nurses and doctors with basic NRP in an effort to address the high rate of infant mortality in the region. There was also hope that after Dr. Holland and I taught the course to local nurse-midwives and pediatricians, they in turn would be able to teach NRP basics in their hospital and at the local midwifery school.
Dr. Holland and I donned our protective military equipment and traveled about 30 minutes from our base in Kandahar Airfield to an enclosed Canadian military base in the heart of Kandahar City. The base was surrounded by an eight-foot-high concrete fence topped with threatening barbed wire. Soldiers with weapons guarded the gates and kept watch from towers high above the ground.
While we felt safe inside the base, our students did not. The class was some two hours late getting started because of an early morning suicide bombing in the city. Because of the nurses’ security concerns, we were forced to condense two days of eight-hour-long classes into two blocks of instruction two hours each in length.
The Afghan nurses were concerned about being seen working with coalition forces. They felt unsafe traveling to the Canadian facility because the route was dangerously laden with improvised explosive devices. Due to an increase in suicide bombings and Taliban activities around the country, many husbands had restricted the movement of their wives and children. The nurses’ frustrations were compounded by several other factors, such as the refusal of a local male pediatrician to attend the course. He had been scheduled to take the class but refused to attend because he did not want to be seen traveling with a group of women.
But in spite of their fears and concerns, the eight nurses and one female pediatrician were full of energy. They arrived huddled together dressed in sky blue burkas that concealed their faces and bodies. Once the women were inside the classroom, the burkas came off and the course began like any other NRP class. We used an interpreter to translate each slide and followed up the instruction with lots of hands-on practice. The students were excited and eager to learn. They were desperate to improve their clinical knowledge and skills.
Most Afghan midwives are trained by experienced nurses. They have very little classroom education. They also continue to do a fair number of deliveries in patients’ homes rather than in mater-nity wards. This is because their local hospitals lack many vital newborn supplies, such as bulb suctions and ambu bags. The typical Women and Pediatrics Ward has minimal oxygen and a small foot-pump suction machine. The local city hospital had two donated newborn warmers but they were kept in storage because no one knew how to use them and the hospital lacked the proper power supply.
Teaching this class in a country where medical technology was primitive, women lacked freedom and potential danger was everywhere made me feel as though I was teaching NRP to black nurse-midwives in rural America at the turn of the 20th century. I found myself wondering about the lives and working conditions of these African American nurse-midwives from an earlier era. Like the Afghan nurses, did they worry about their safety as they traveled around the countryside? Did they cluck their tongues at the dangers of 14-year-old girls giving birth in dusty village houses? Did they shake their heads at doctors who refused to be seen in the company of a nurse-midwife?
Perhaps they too trained younger nurses in back kitchens with little equipment in the hope that some young woman wouldn’t have to travel miles on unsafe roads just to give birth. I also wondered if black midwives from the past century were as vocal as the Afghan nurses of today about the lack of basic prenatal care available to women.
The students in our NRP course were excited to have a female nurse teaching the class. They were fascinated by my skin color and hair texture. “Is she from Africa?” they whispered amongst each other.
They were shocked that I would leave my children at home in America in the care of my husband to go work in a foreign country—something that would be unthinkable in their culture. “Why would any mother do this?” they wondered. They were disappointed that I had traveled to their country without my husband or brother but they were pleased that I was a married woman, a nurse with children who was educated and able to earn her own money.
At the end of the course, each nurse-midwife was provided with a copy of the NRP book, in English. They hoped that perhaps a doctor or local interpreters would translate the important pages we earmarked for them. As the women donned their burkas, they voiced excitement at the thought of practicing and sharing their new clinical skills. (And yes, they now know that there are black female nurses in America!)
I learned a great deal about bravery from the Afghan nurses. Today, as I travel back and forth across the world to do my job, I am grateful that I don’t have to be overly concerned about my personal safety. Above all, I am gratified that the classes Dr. Holland and I taught added a small amount of useful knowledge to midwifery clinical practice in Kandahar, Afghanistan. I believe this knowledge will help make a difference in improving the lives of women and children in this war-torn city.
CAPT Colleen Reid, BSN, RN, is a military nurse who currently works at the Landstuhl Army Regional Medical Center in Germany.