Alice Benjamin’s nursing education journey has been everything except traditional. At first, she thought her path would hinder her career, and she secretly envied the traditional 4-year nursing program. But her education journey has provided unique, colorful, resourceful, well-rounded, and practical real-life experiences that helped mold Benjamin into the nurse leader she is today.
Benjamin aspired to become an advanced practice nurse and grow within the nursing profession, but the impact outside of the hospital motivated her the most.
Seeing the health disparities and health inequities negatively impacting the black community inspired Benjamin to become a community health leader in creating programs and empowering and educating communities of color to take control of their health and get the most out of their healthcare. Then she advanced her nursing education and learned more about research, health policy, and public health. Finally, she advanced her clinical expertise in cardiology as a CNS and NP to make a difference in her profession.
Benjamin, affectionately known as ‘America’s Favorite Nurse,’ is the chief nursing officer and correspondent for Nurse.org. She credits her education and personal experiences for becoming a well-respected and credible community health leader, propelling her into the national spotlight with appearances on national media platforms as a medical correspondent.
The series highlights healthcare leaders who are prominent figures in their organizations and are making transformational impacts in nursing.
Meet Alice Benjamin, APRN, MSN, ACNS-BC, FNP-B, CCRN, CEN, CV-BC, Chief Nursing Officer and correspondent for Nurse.org, clinical nurse specialist and family nurse practitioner, and critical-care and emergency medicine nurse at the Community Hospital of Huntington Park, California.
Talk about your role in nursing.
I’m an advanced practice nurse. I’m a clinical nurse specialist and a family nurse practitioner, working primarily as a nurse practitioner in the emergency room. I wear many hats because I’m also the chief nursing officer at Nurse.org, the largest online nursing platform. I also do much volunteer work with the American Heart Association and AARP. And this stems from just loving being a nurse and caring for other people because I do a lot of work in community education and advocacy, which even spills over into television, which is another opportunity to educate viewers at home.
I love nursing. I’ve been doing this for over 24 years. I couldn’t even think of doing anything different than what I’m doing now. Again, I’m in the emergency room now, but I’ve worked ICU, telemetry, home health, and critical care. There are so many places and needs for nurses. My mentor once told me wherever there are people, you need a nurse. I’ve found lots of great opportunities in the nursing profession.
Tell us about your career path and how you ascended to that role.
Right out of high school, I never knew I wanted to be a nurse. But I was the eldest, and my dad was a retired serviceman and smoked cigarettes in the military. They used to say, smoke them if you got him. So he picked up that habit and suffered severe health issues. He had high blood pressure, strokes, heart failure, and heart attacks. And as the eldest, I would help take care of him, and my dad would tell me, “You’re gonna be a great nurse one day.” And I said, “Well, I’m gonna be an accountant, I’m gonna count the money and things like that.” But I naturally fell into it. And right out of high school, I signed up for a vocational nursing program, and on the pathway, you can take the early part of it and become a nursing assistant. So I immediately became a nursing assistant and went to school to become a licensed vocational nurse. And once I achieved that then I went on to more school and became an RN with my associate’s degree. Then I started working as an RN and went back to school, I got my bachelor’s degree, still working, and then I went and got my master’s and became a clinical nurse specialist, an advanced practice nurse.
I did that for quite some time and even went back to more school to become a family nurse practitioner because I wanted to do more in healthcare as a nurse. Again, inspired by my dad, who died of a massive heart attack. And when he died, I said, “I’m going to be the best cardiac nurse in the world.” So I spent my career climbing the career ladder as a nurse and doing tons of community service with the American Heart Association, the NAACP, the Urban League, and women’s groups to get the word out about heart disease in underserved communities. So while working in the hospitals, I simultaneously did that. And in hindsight, I look back, and I’m like, gosh, where did I have the time to do all that? But when you’re so passionate about something, it fuels this fire and motivation. I just had the energy and the passion to do it.
I’ve also been adjunct clinical faculty at pre-licensure nursing programs to help model nursing and cultivate and foster future nurses. And during this career, inspired by my father, I often tried to bridge the gap by taking what I was doing in the hospital and the community organizations I was working with. Because people go to the hospital, they receive care, get discharged, and then they’re in the community with whatever resources they have. They must learn to navigate resources, insurance, and everything they need to stay healthy. So I did a lot of bridging the gap. At one point, I was the first nurse to chair the American Heart Association’s western state affiliate’s health inequity program. I oversaw American Heart Association’s community outreach programs over ten states which I’m very proud of because, as a nurse, knowing firsthand what happens in the hospital and having the experience of my dad, who went to a small community hospital, that didn’t provide all the resources and help that he needed to bridge the gap. So I’ve spent much of my career trying to bridge the gap between hospitals, clinics, and the community.
What are the most important attributes of today’s nursing leaders?
One of the essential attributes of a nursing leader is knowing how to be strategic when it comes to communication and working with others. As nurses, we are great at our nursing organizations. We advocate for nursing quite often. But sometimes, we’re not invited to specific strategic meetings, committee workgroups, or important work being done in healthcare, and we should be at that table. So we need to invite ourselves. We need to rub elbows with other groups recognizing that nursing is the largest segment of the healthcare workforce. We have nurses of all levels, LPNs RNs, and different types of advanced practice nurses, and we have a lot to contribute as the eyes and ears and often providers of care in the hospital. If we can be a part of these committees working on crucial national health initiatives, we can contribute and help make a change. So, for example, for my work with the American Heart Association, someone asked, “Would you want to chair this committee?” I said, “Absolutely.” It was interesting because I was the only nurse invited to that committee of 50 of us from over ten states. They said I was the first person ever to attend. So we have to recognize that nursing doesn’t just happen in the hospital. It occurs anywhere people are, and we need to strategize with other community leaders, even from business finance and education, and realize we can make a difference in many areas.
What does being a nursing leader mean to you, and what are you most proud of?
It always feels good when a patient comes back to you, and you may not even recognize that person, and they’ll say you took care of my mother or me when I was in the hospital. Then they tell you the story, and you start to remember, and they thank you so much because they were knocking on death’s door. And because of the care that I provided or some motivational words that I shared with them to keep them motivated and keep them going, I made an impact on their life. So that always feels good.
But as far as professionally, what am I most proud of? I have a lot of things that I’m proud of. But one of the things that makes me unique has been my presence on national platforms and television. A Woodhull Study shows that less than 2% of health experts are on tv or less than 2% of television contributors are nurses. Often, when nurses do have the opportunity to talk on television, it’s about a strike or some act of violence against them or something that victimizes the nurses instead of the nurse being a leader. I’m the expert. And I’ve had the privilege of being on several different programs, and now and as a medical contributor for NBC for Los Angeles, as a nurse to model that nurses can be health experts, too. So I’m very proud of that.
What is the most significant challenge facing nursing today?
One of the things we have to focus on is the work environment and the mass exodus that’s happening with nursing. COVID did a number on many people, more than we could have anticipated. But again, it’s the largest segment of the workforce, with workers on the frontline in these hospitals. Nursing care is around the clock and is what keeps hospitals open. Nurses were overwhelmed, overworked, under-resourced, and often needed to be appreciated more in ways that nurses found meaningful. We must fix that because nurses are leading the bedside. And we know that the baby boomers will be retiring, which will give us a nursing shortage. We know that more than 80,000 nursing school candidates are turned away yearly because we don’t have enough space in schools for them. We’ll find ourselves in dire need and shortage of bedside nurses if we don’t turn around and fix the workplace environment. And there are a lot of things. Talking about finance, staffing, the pipeline quality of education, what is meaningful to the nurse, and how to make them feel appreciated because it’s not always about the money. It’s about just being appreciated by your employer. So we have to fix that, or healthcare will crumble even further.
As a nursing leader, how are you working to overcome this challenge?
One of the things I’m doing to help with that is my role at Nurse.org as their Chief Nursing Officer. Nursing schools, hospitals, students, and different health organizations follow, listen, or collaborate with nurses at work. And what I’m doing as a nurse leader there is making sure that we are addressing critical professional issues that impact our profession, and our practice, spreading the word on important things, giving attention to the nurses who seem voiceless in their stories, and getting the attention and hopefully providing the influence that’s needed to get agendas and policies and practices moved and changed. Because things will happen at a certain hospital in a small city, and nobody ever knows. But if we take that story, we amplify it on our side. We not only let all the nurses know that this is going on, but then that sparks conversations in hospitals with their leadership. If we can address and discuss those issues, it gives them attention to something that doesn’t have to happen at the next hospital.
You said that your father was your inspiration to become a nurse. What nursing leader inspires you the most and why?
Mary Eliza Mahoney is my most significant source of inspiration. She was the first African American to study and work professionally as a trained nurse in the U.S. She inspired me. And especially during those times in the 1870s as an African American. Graduating from nursing school was a challenging feat. I could only imagine the barriers in place, but I’m sure her passion for caring for people pushed and motivated her to move forward. She could overcome adversities and challenges, especially of that magnitude, for the sake of wanting to care for someone, which is inspirational to me
What inspirational message would you like to share with the next generation of nurses?
There’s so much I want to say to the future generation of nurses. It may sound very cliche, but I want to tell them not to give up. And I say that because we can often ask for something at a hospital and be told no. Or that doesn’t fit our agenda. Or we can’t do that right now. We need the resources. And I found that where there’s a will, there’s a way. And so in the work that I’ve done, especially with community work, there often is no budget, we’re working mainly with volunteers, we have to influence people to want to participate and get to the cause, donate to the cause. And by not giving up, we can push forward to get our agendas, move the policies that we need to put in place the practices we need to put in place to make things better for the next nurse and the next patient. So the next generation of nurse leaders will be vital because it’s not a denial. It may be a delay. So I don’t want them to give up. They must keep pushing so conditions can only get better. We’ve come so far in nursing. Here in California alone, nurse practitioners can practice independently in a position. That’s been a tall order. We’ve been fighting for that for so long. But we wouldn’t be where we are today if we had given up when met with so many obstacles. So I don’t want nurses to give up, and that’s the message I would tell the next generation of nurses.