An Open Letter to the African American Nurses That We All Love

An Open Letter to the African American Nurses That We All Love

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

–Andrae Crouch (full lyrics on Genius)

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.

Nursing and the Table of Brotherhood and Sisterhood

Nursing and the Table of Brotherhood and Sisterhood

“I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.” These were the astounding words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., during his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. Unfortunately, this is, in part, still a dream. Sons of former slaves and sons of former slave owners are not sitting together at the table of brotherhood. Rather, sons and daughters of former slaves and former slave owners are hiding underneath a table of institutional inequities, especially in nursing. A great deal of work must be done in order for this dream to come true. However, some of this work must be put into the hands of successful African American nurses, who ought to feel a sense of obligation to motivate and empower other African American nurses and nursing students. There are, indeed, accomplished African American nurses out there, but not enough. Nonetheless, are we holding our younger brothers’ and sisters’ hands as we should be? This can be put into practice with enlightening and enriching high school and college mentorship programs. 

According to a 2013 survey conducted by the National Council of State Boards of Nursing and the National Forum of State Nursing Workforce Centers, the RN population is 6% African American. Additionally, data from the American Association of Colleges of Nursing’s (AACN) annual survey revealed that 9.6% of students enrolled in baccalaureate nursing programs in 2013 were African American. At the master’s level, 14.4% were African American; only 14.2% were African American at the doctoral level.

These statistics reveal that not only is there a tremendous shortage of African American nurses in the workforce, but there are not many African Americans being enrolled into nursing programs, despite recruitment efforts that have been put forth. This is problematic when considering the population of patients; the nursing workforce is not reflective of the changing and diverse demographics of the United States population. Mentorship programs can help to increase enrollment rates, help the African American nursing shortage, and help with the deliverance of culturally competent nursing care.

There are several recruitment programs for potential African American nurses, but is this enough? For example, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) joined with the AACN in 2008 to launch the RWJF New Careers in Nursing scholarship program. The program is designed to alleviate the nation’s nursing shortage by dramatically expanding the pipeline of students from minority backgrounds in accelerated nursing programs. In January 2010, the AACN published a set of expectations for nurses completing graduate programs and created faculty resources needed to develop nursing expertise in cultural competency. Several scholarships for African American nurses are also available. Additionally, the RWJF initiated the Doctoral Advancement in Nursing project in 2013 to enhance the number of minority nurses completing PhD and DNP degrees.

During my years at the University of Connecticut (UConn), I was awarded multiple scholarships, including the Yale Minority Nursing Scholarship, the Husky Nurse Scholarship, and the Chi Eta Phi Scholarship. All of these scholarships in my recollection were awarded to me because of merit and because I was from a minority background. What about mentorship programs? Why weren’t these offered to me?

As I reflect on my own undergraduate experience, I remember being very grateful for the scholarship funds. But I also remember being unprepared for the culture shock that I was about to face at the UConn campus in Storrs, Connecticut. Current literature highlights the fact that African American students in predominantly white institutions find it difficult to reach a level of comfort and acceptance within the new cultural environments. Students have reported feeling underrepresented, which results in feelings of loneliness, isolation, and frustration.

It has also been noted that the smaller the number of minority students on campus, the greater the problems because of limited social contacts. Out of my class of over 100 students, approximately 10 of these students were from minority backgrounds. Though feeling extremely proud and esteemed for becoming a graduate of the UConn School of Nursing, I would have been even more grateful to have a successful African American mentor who consistently told me, “You got this!” Self-empowerment and motivation can only go so far. What about those students and new nurses who require a pat on the back from the hand of a “brotha or sista” who truly understands and has “been there and done that”?

A few months ago, I was asked to become a mentor for an African American high school student, NiaMarie Jackson, who was inspired to become a nurse while dealing with her mother’s lifelong diagnosis of HIV. Our mentorship experience has been focused on effective nurse-patient relationships. She revealed to me that she had been included in a trial to test the efficacy of drugs that would decrease the likelihood of vertical transmission. Her childhood consisted of multiple visits to doctors and nurses who all deeply impacted her life and led her in the direction of becoming an aspiring nurse.

We developed a wonderful rapport. The very first meeting consisted of an emotional, heartfelt sharing of experiences. It felt as though I had known this ambitious young lady for more than an hour. She reminded me of myself when I was younger. Just as I had done, she participated in many programs and was doing very well academically. I found myself becoming frequently concerned as her mentor. I often questioned her about her college application process. If I had not heard from her in a few days, I became worried.

She is currently doing exceptionally well and has been accepted to Winston-Salem State University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Here, she will pursue a bachelor’s degree in nursing. According to NiaMarie, the mentorship experience not only “reassured me that I wanted to become a nurse, but I gained a new outlook on life and how to deal with different people in different situations.”

Every nurse from a minority background should be able to experience this. There is nothing more gratifying than knowing you have helped a member from an underrepresented group become successful while contributing to the diversity of today’s workforce. My mentee knows that I am only a phone call, e-mail, or text away as a source of support.

Mentorship should be considered as the main vehicle for African American nursing success. It allows African American nurses to connect on a level of cultural familiarity. It is easier for the student to say, “If he or she can do it, then I can do it too.” I can happily say that I am a witness to this. Dr. Martin Luther King’s wishes may still be a dream; however, it is not an impossible dream. His efforts need to continue with the African American nurses who are successful. We need to feel a sense of obligation to help others from minority backgrounds with their accomplishments. When this happens, there may be a possibility of sons and daughters of former slaves and former slave owners sitting together at a table of brotherhood and sisterhood.

Latoya Lewis, RN, MSN, is employed at the University of Connecticut Health Center in Farmington, CT as a medical surgical nurse. While obtaining her master’s degree in nursing education, she has developed a passion in reaching out educationally to underrepresented populations.