Nurses have had a particularly challenging year. This year, we’ve seen an intense pandemic strain healthcare workers while simultaneously experiencing a powerful social uprising against racism in the United States. The two major events have some common touchpoints where social, health, education, and economic disparities intersect and are highlighted.
Minority Nurse recently spoke with Lillian Pryor MSN, RN, CNN, and president of the American Nephrology Nurses Association (ANNA), about how this year, in particular, could cause a sea of change across the nation. The process isn’t going to be easy, she says, and it’s only the beginning. But it’s needed, necessary, and long overdue.
“This is a very unprecedented, pivotal kind of moment,” Pryor says. It’s not just one event or even a couple that have brought the nation to this point, she says. “The emotional and physical impact of a pandemic is universally affecting all nurses, although studies have shown that COVID-19 is disproportionately affecting our Black and brown patients. There are social determinants of health that are disproportionately egregious against people of color. You have to think about poverty. It’s not just racism—it’s poverty and not having equitable access.”
And while COVID-19 dominates the lives of healthcare workers, the Black Lives Matter movement has continued to grow, evolve, and impact different people—from those who have grown up with the impact of systemic racism on their own lives to those who have never given racism much thought because it never impacted their lives in a negative and direct way. “I’ve talked with my colleagues about this, and it’s something we’ve had to deal with for a long time,” says Pryor. “I think that Black nurses have always had to face racism and yet continue to function in a manner that embodies the true meaning of nursing.”
As nurses, their job is to help people, and they do that even with patients who are openly racist, she says, but that takes an emotional toll. Sometimes the interactions can lead to something more meaningful—especially if the nurse is able to call attention to the action. A patient who didn’t realize a comment was racist, may be able to hear how it impacted the person it was directed at. In those cases, Pryor says she calls on her ability to be forgiving. But sometimes, it’s intentional, she says. “For so many of us, that’s what we’ve been doing for a while—we just keep going,” she says. “As long as I’m not threatened, I’m going to keep taking care of you because that’s what I’m here to do. Sometimes you get angry.”
What’s happening with the Black Lives Matter movement right now seems to have started a new opportunity. “I believe we just have to start the conversations,” Pryor says. “For sure, education needs to happen, but more than just education; intentional, meaningful awareness of ‘unconscious bias,’ the realities of racism, those written and un-written ‘rules’ that continue to perpetuate systemic inequality to disrupt and then transform this into action.”
Pryor is encouraged by what she sees, even as she knows it’s not going to be immediate. Black nurses need to feel they are able to speak up when something is wrong without being concerned about repercussions—emotional, physical, or professional. They also shouldn’t shoulder the responsibility to correct the wrongs, and that’s where organizations can begin to lead the way by implementing the training and ongoing conversations that will begin to make a change. “You have to be aware and you have to pay attention to it,” she says.
“I believe nursing, will, as the most trusted profession, use our voice to speak out about health inequality, advocate for fair and just health policy, point out institutional racism in our schools, places of work, etc.,” she says. “Then we must promote safety where racism and inequality can be challenged so that equity, inclusion, and diversity can be the experience of all. ANNA recently released a statement against racism pledging to do our part to create systems that support advancement and equality for all.”
When thinking of what nursing can do and continue to do, Pryor recalls the words of ANA president Ernest Grant who stated, “Commit to sustainable efforts to address racism and discrimination…and hold ourselves and our leaders accountable.”
Those words resonate for Pryor. “It’s the time to do this and everyone is willing,” she says, “and that encourages my heart. I’m hopeful it will get better. Never give up hope.”