Polly Sheppard has been on a mission since surviving the 2015 Emmanuel AME church massacre in South Carolina. If the killer spared the retired prison nurse in the hope that she would spread his message of gun-toting white supremacy, though, he must be grievously disappointed.In fact, the indefatigable septuagenarian has been delivering her own messages – and like many nurses, she is a very good communicator.
In the years following the notorious shooting, Sheppard crisscrossed the country to speak against gun violence. Then, once she accumulated enough speaker fees she poured her earnings into another passion and established her own Scholarship Foundation to support nursing students in Charleston. Now, as the seventh anniversary of the chilling church murders approaches, Sheppard is focusing on another initiative to reduce future bloodshed: this week she sent an eloquent appeal to South Carolina’s senate urging them to finally pass a hate crimes law.
“Being there, laying under the table with this gun to my head couldn’t be anything but hate.”
Like most hate crime laws, the proposed SC bill would add up to five years to prison sentences for any homicide or assault motivated by hatred of the victim’s race, sexual orientation, gender, religion, or disability. Aside from Wyoming, South Carolina is the only state that has failed to pass some form of law against hate crimes, but the current bill has faced a steep uphill battle. At present eight SC senators are determined to see it expire… which is a painful irony as Emmanuel pastor Clementa Pinckney, a victim of the massacre, had been a senator himself. If the bill ends up on the table as a code blue, though, it won’t be due to inactivity on Sheppard’s part.
In a powerful two-minute video viewed by the senate on April 27, Sheppard addressed the recalcitrant senators. She mused on other ironies, asking some acute questions: “I really can’t understand them standing against a [hate] law, but they can pass a law to kill somebody a firing squad. They can take that to the floor, but they can’t bring the hate crime law to the floor… What’s the problem?” Sheppard also wondered “why South Carolina has to be the last, almost the last to get a hate crime law? Because we didn’t have it. We had to go to the federal government for (the AME killer) to be charged with a hate crime. It makes no sense.”
Sheppard reminded her audience: “Eight members of the South Carolina Senate are giving a safe haven to hate. Every time you look at senator Pinckney’s photograph, you should be reminded that hate killed him.”
So, you are thinking about completing your Master’s degree. You may be just graduating with your bachelor’s, established in your career, seeking career advancement, or an overall career change. You should commend yourself wherever you currently are in your professional journey. Graduate school is essential for career progression and as daunting as the challenge may be it is feasible and worthwhile. However, there are certain things that I wish I had known previously to enrolling in my first graduate courses that would have saved me a ton of grief on this grad school journey.
Learn the APA Manual
Do you briefly remember being introduced to this in your undergraduate English and Research classes? You know, the blue book that you couldn’t wait to toss as soon as you completed those courses! Well, don’t get too excited and toss that manual out just yet. The APA manual will be your bible at the graduate level. It is best to not only familiarize yourself with it but read it cover to cover. In all seriousness, there will be no mercy for APA formatting issues at the graduate level, and failure to comply will hinder your ability to graduate. Let’s be honest; graduate school is very expensive so do not lose points over APA errors and get your bang for your bucks when it’s time to cash in on that top G.P.A.
Grad school will push your writing capabilities to the maximum. When I first started, I went in under the false pretenses that I was a decent writer. After all, my highest scores were always in English and Language Arts. However, never underestimate the power of proofreading your document, or having someone else review it. It is important to remember that you are not supposed to be writing as if you are talking in scholarly writing. Read every single thing you submit out loud at least two times before turning it in. You will be surprised at some errors you will find in your documents once you hear it out loud. I swear by Owlet Purdue, Grammarly, and PERRLA to assist with the completion of my papers.
One of the biggest mistakes that I made during my Grad school journey was “taking a break”. Apparently, life happens to everybody, but if you can help it, you should stay on the course to graduate on time. While taking a leave of absence is certainly an option, there are some universities have a time limit on the amount of time you can spend on the completion of your master’s degree. Taking a leave of absence sounds a nice break until you return and you are under even more pressure to complete your degree. Stay on track and graduate on time. Put yourself out of grad school misery. Try not to prolong it.
My zodiac sign of a Libra makes finding balance very high on my priority list. Regardless of your sign, it is essential to find a way to balance everything you have going on in life. Many of us are career focused, have spouses or partners, children, and community obligations. There are going to be some times that you will simply have to say no to others as well as avoid taking on too many additional duties. You have to be able to take care of yourself before you can take care of others. Do not feel guilty about taking a step back or going on a much need hiatus to keep everything together. Remember that this is temporary, and there will always be opportunities to restock your plate once you have graduated.
Cost vs. Reputation
This has been an ongoing debate for such a long time. I will give you my honest opinion and say that it is best to go for value in regards to selecting a school to attend. There is absolutely nothing wrong with investing yourself, but please do not break the bank along the way. Try your very best to avoid debt, save up, and develop a reasonable budget that you can use to finance your educational goals. If you are shelling out a ton of money, ensure that the institution has a reputation that fits your tuition bill. Student loan debt is a serious problem. Remember that you will need to pay that money back, and if this degree does not make a high paying job seem promising to you it may be necessary to scale back. Remember, grad school isn’t cheap!
Wrapping it All Up
I hope that you avoid the pitfalls that I incurred during my grad school journey and that these tips will help ease you in your transition and prepare you for entry into grad school. A graduate degree is totally obtainable; it’s just a different academic dynamic. I’ll see you on the other side!
In the United States, race once defined an individual’s level of freedom, including where they could enter, sit, and eat. Today, with African Americans at a higher risk than White Americans for obesity, high blood pressure, stroke, and heart disease, race also defines the quality of healthcare, making health disparities in African Americans the true silent killer.
Statistics from the American Heart Association and Center for Disease Control and Prevention acknowledges the prevalence of cardiovascular diseases in African Americans. However, the link between race and health are obscured, and there is not much conversation dedicated to eliminating the socioeconomic and cultural barriers that make African Americans a target for death by disease.
So the question is what should we as healthcare professionals implement to address socioeconomic and cultural barriers that contribute to the healthcare disparities in African Americans and other minority populations? Should we continue to research different treatment regimens that can improve the overall health of African Americans and other minority groups? Or should we continue to educate these populations through traditional patient education? The Answer is No! In order for us to get something that we have never had, that means we have to do something that we have never done. The solution to this issue must extend beyond medicine, and instead be addressed by community leaders, community health providers, and minority healthcare professionals so race can be a category and not a barrier to quality healthcare.
There is undoubtedly a necessity to increase the level of cultural sensitivity among physicians, nurses, & other healthcare personnel; recognize unfavorable socioeconomic and cultural barriers as a preexisting condition; improve the community surrounding African Americans & other minority patients; and increase the number of minority healthcare workers. Implementing these actions will begin the process of closing the gap of socioeconomic and cultural barriers that contribute to the healthcare disparities in African Americans and other minority populations.
Erma Willis-Alford, BSN, RN, is quick to say that her experience as the first African American nurse at Memorial Hospital of Southern Oklahoma is “no Rosa Parks story.”
Unlike the late Parks, who became a symbol of courage in the civil rights era for refusing to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Ala., bus to a white man, the 61-year-old nurse says she experienced little prejudice from colleagues and patients when she joined the Ardmore, Okla., hospital in 1966.
Her story, instead, could more aptly be described as the heart-warming tale of an African American woman embraced by a hospital and city seeking to bring about peaceful integration. Anyone who remembers or has studied the 1960s civil rights struggle will remember that integration often occurred only after overcoming violent resistance.
Willis-Alford says her story is quite the opposite. She wasn’t trying to make a statement or become a civil rights pioneer when she applied for a position at the hospital that now goes by the name of Mercy Memorial Health Center. She just wanted a job. She had become impressed with the hospital after visiting a sick cousin who was a patient there. To a small-town girl from Pauls Valley, Okla., the four-story building looked like a gleaming tower dedicated to modern medicine.
Compared with the one-story hospital in Pauls Valley, a city that to this day has a population of only 9,152 people, the Ardmore facility looked like a skyscraper, Willis-Alford remembers. The well-dressed staff appeared so efficient and professional that she yearned to be a part of it all. So she decided to apply for a job there, “not knowing that they did not have a black nurse and had never had a black nurse on the staff.”
“A Beautiful Experience”
Willis-Alford’s interest in nursing started at a young age and seemed quite natural for someone in her family. Her great-great grandmothers and their sisters had all been midwives and her father worked as a scrub tech in a hospital operating room. She began her formal training as a teenager in 1964, when she enrolled in a first aid class. A year later she took a class to become a nurse’s aide and that same year began work at the Pauls Valley State School, a facility for children born with deformities.
Willis-Alford, who says she has worked in every type of nursing except the operating room, isn’t sure what the administration at Memorial Hospital of Southern Oklahoma had on its mind when they hired her. If there was some plan to integrate the hospital and use her as the guinea pig, they never told her. And they didn’t parade her through the facility as some sort of symbol of brotherly love.
They just put her to work, placing her with two other nurse’s aides who taught her the ropes. Later, when she became a nurse, the floor nurses took her under their wings and trained her so she could work on any floor.
“It was a beautiful experience,” she recalls. “I’m sure there must have been some racism, but it wasn’t blatant. I didn’t see it. I was so eager to work and make a good salary.” She had three children at the time (and would eventually give birth to another) and didn’t have time to worry about what people were saying. “I was more concerned about doing my job, doing what the head nurse asked me to do and doing exactly what the physicians wanted,” she explains.
The hospital staff went out of its way to make her feel included, she adds, and she, in turn, went out of her way to get to know people. Although she didn’t drink coffee or smoke, she willingly joined her colleagues on coffee or smoking breaks because it gave her a chance to get to know them on a personal level. “I would stand there and inhale their second-hand smoke and enjoyed every bit of it,” she laughs.
Willis-Alford, who eventually became supervisor of the hospital’s emergency department, says she never received “the dirty end of the stick.” She was expected to do the same work as any other nurse and never felt she was given more work than others.
Memorial Hospital deserves much of the credit for Willis-Alford’s career progression from nurse’s aide to licensed vocational nurse and, eventually, to registered nurse. The hospital paid for her to attend a 12-month LVN program at Southern Oklahoma Technology Center in Ardmore. When she graduated in 1968, she became the second African American to complete that particular program, which had been established two years earlier. She received her LVN license in 1968.
Three years later, the hospital again provided financial support that enabled her to continue her professional education. They paid for her to attend a two-year RN program at nearby Murray State College. She became the first African-American to graduate from that program, which was also in its second year. But she would not have achieved that milestone if the Ardmore community hadn’t stepped up to help her during a time of family crisis.
In 1973, an accident left her young daughter severely burned and facing months of recuperation and reconstructive surgery. Willis-Alford’s instinct was to quit school and care for her, and she would have done that had it not been for the wives of Ardmore’s Shriners, who offered to tend to her daughter while she attended school each day.
“[They] told me, ‘Go on to school, you get your lessons and learn to be a nurse,’” she says. Later, when she and her daughter traveled to Galveston, Texas, for reconstructive surgeries, two Ardmore physicians offered to let her son stay with them until she returned.
The Shriners’ wives and the physicians were all white. “They’re just that way,” she says, explaining why people went out of their way to help. “They wanted to do the right thing.”
Oil discovered more than a century ago had brought wealth to Ardmore residents, and that wealth bought more than just the stately mansions that still stand along the city’s Sunset Boulevard. It also helped fund five major foundations and endowments that have brought high standards of excellence in medicine, academics and the arts to Ardmore.
Perhaps the fact that the city operated, at least to some degree, on a “higher plane” led Memorial Hospital to integrate so easily and to support Willis-Alford’s aspirations to become a nurse. Or maybe the hospital simply valued her work. “I was told that I gave excellent care,” she says. “I pride myself on doing the right thing for my patients.”
At first, some of the older patients had trouble adjusting to having an African American nurse care for them. Willis-Alford says some used what she calls “the ‘N’ word” to refer to her. She didn’t like the word then any more than she does now.
“But I did not take it out on them, because that’s how they were raised,” she says. “They didn’t know any better. Why would I fight with someone who was ill? You don’t do that. But eventually they would say, ‘Have the black girl come in’ [because I provided such good care].”
Another major step forward took place a short time after Willis-Alford’s arrival at the hospital. Until then, the patients had always been segregated, and minority patients were sometimes placed in hallways and treatment rooms. Suddenly, the hospital staff started placing patients in rooms without regard to race. In a subtle way, her presence was again making a difference.
Erma Willis-Alford paved the path for other nurses of color in Oklahoma to follow. Although she was the only black RN in Ardmore for 15 years, other African Americans were hired by Memorial Hospital to work as nurse’s aides and LVNs.
“I think my presence and the road I took stimulated others to want to do the same things,” she says.
Eventually, more African American RNs began working in Ardmore. Willis-Alford estimates that approximately 15 black RNs work in the city today. More are needed, she says, adding that she hopes more African American men and women will enter the profession.
“We do need more and more and more [minority nurses], because sometimes [minority patients are able to relate better to caregivers who share their race or ethnicity],” she says. “Sometimes another person of their race may be able to get them to speak up and explain the problems that they have.”
Why are African Americans and other people of color still so underrepresented in nursing? Willis-Alford believes that sometimes the barriers to progress come from inside rather than from others.
“I think a lot of it has to do with self-determination and controlling your own environment,” she explains. For example, some minority students look at the rigorous coursework needed to become a nurse and red flags of self-doubt pop up. She feels it is crucial for parents and educators to work together to encourage and prepare young people of color to pursue health care careers–for example, by making sure they take science and math classes from an early age. “By the time they are ready to graduate from high school, it is too late to begin to take those classes,” she asserts. “[For students who don’t have that preparation,] college will be an uphill struggle.”
She speaks highly of a national training initiative called the Area Health Education Center (AHEC) program, designed for underrepresented and disadvantaged students from under-served urban and rural areas who are in the seventh grade and higher. The federally funded program, established in 1971, enables students to shadow someone who works in the health care field. AHEC also hosts a summer camp that allows students to gain hands-on experience in health care-related activities.
Still Spreading the Message
Willis-Alford eventually left Memorial Hospital in the 1980s for a better-paying job at Presbyterian Hospital in Oklahoma City, where she worked on the cancer floor. She became certified in chemotherapy and worked with bone marrow transplant patients.
She is now semi-retired, although it’s hard to tell. She lectures once a month at the Ardmore Senior Citizens Center, serves on various boards, reviews grants for the federal government, helps organize health fairs and works in youth camps each summer. In November 2003, she was part of a U.S. medical delegation that traveled to Cuba through the People to People Ambassador Program, an international exchange program established by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1956.
Willis-Alford is also involved in many preventive education activities aimed at fighting health disparities in the African American community. She provides information on diabetes, chronic kidney disease, cardiovascular disease, cancer, obesity and HIV/AIDS. Some of this information isn’t readily available at community health clinics, she says.
“Certain chronic diseases may not be prevented, but they can certainly be delayed,” she emphasizes. “That is the message I try to get out. People should not wait for signs and symptoms to appear before they seek medical help. We are now in the era of prevention.”
Not surprisingly, three of Willis-Alford’s four children work in the health care field–her youngest daughter became an RN exactly 20 years after she did–and one of her 12 grandchildren is studying to become a physician. These days, she says she can’t maintain the pace she did years ago and has no interest in working the “long hauls” that one has to endure as a floor nurse. But that doesn’t mean she plans on retiring to her rocking chair any time soon.
Her next major goal is to earn a graduate degree, preferably a doctorate in health education and leadership. She’s considering schools in Oklahoma City and Denton, Texas, that offer doctorates with classes structured in such a way that she won’t have to attend school five days a week.
This remarkable nurse may not be the Oklahoma equivalent of Rosa Parks, who died in October 2005 at the age of 92. But when the history of Ardmore, Okla., is written, there will no doubt be a page devoted to Erma Willis-Alford. Photo by leoncillo sabino
One of the hot topics in nursing is the need for good nurse leaders. For minority nurses, the topic is especially important. As the patient population becomes increasingly diverse, nurse leaders of all ethnicities are going to be needed to most accurately represent the diversity of those patients.
If you are intrigued by the idea of taking on more challenging roles and increasing your responsibility but aren’t sure you have what it takes, read on. Some leaders have a natural way with both superiors and subordinates and inherently magnetic qualities to boot – the term “born leader” probably applies to these folks.
But if you weren’t graced with those qualities, you can always learn them, and wanting to do more, achieve more, and make a change is more than half the battle.
If you don’t feel like a born leader, how can you make yourself look like you are one?
1. Act Like a Leader
Come up with innovative ideas and make sure they get in front of the right people. You can start small with something in your unit and then expand into something bigger. Always look for ways you can improve your environment. Make your own work habits impeccable – be on time, be calm, be decisive, be professional, and always, always be prepared.
2. Share Your Knowledge
Leaders want to make a change; they don’t want to keep all their knowledge to themselves. Offer to make a lunchtime presentation about changes you implemented that made a difference so you can show others how to do the same. Document new policies so others can achieve the same success. Mentor a younger nurse or a nursing student.
3. Praise Your Colleagues
Have you ever noticed that a good leader offers strong guidance and opinions, but is equally free with giving praise where praise is due? If your team did something great, get the word out and include everyone’s name on documentation. Sing their praises and thank them in whatever way your department finds appropriate. Even something as simple as a fresh fruit and muffin breakfast is appreciated and remembered.
4. Keep Learning
Leaders never stop learning, and they will learn from any situation. Leaders do more than keep their certifications up to date, they learn how to do something new. Take a class in policy change. Investigate a new development in your specialty or learn about any new treatments involving diabetes or whatever chronic condition you see frequently. Join a professional organization and learn how nurses in other organizations work or how they solve problems. Study how businesses motivate workers and keep up with the changing world.
5. Make the Change
Leaders combine the information they learn, the situations they find themselves in, and the people they meet, and they use all that forward momentum to make a change for the better. How can you use those forces at work in your life to make a change? Can you start by being the best advocate for your family or an ill neighbor? Can you help your community or a local school by giving them accurate, timely information with a newsletter or a presentation? Can you make a lasting change for a repeat patient who struggles constantly with discharge instructions or one colleague who needs a little professional guidance?
Maybe you weren’t born a leader, but you can become the leader you want to be. You just have to start somewhere.