You Make a Difference: such simple words to write but a challenge to put into practice. So I’m thrilled to introduce you to a nurse living up to the mantra. Meet Alice Benjamin, or Nurse Alice, as she’s known to many and how she’s making a difference in her patient’s lives, the surrounding community, and the nursing profession every day.
Nurse Alice’s personal experience of her father dying in the ER from cardiac arrest while awaiting care inspired her to become the best cardiac nurse in the world and a community health leader to help create programs and empower and educate communities of color to take control of their health and get the most out of their healthcare.
But that is only part of her incredible journey.
After starting as a volunteer with the American Heart Association educating people about basic heart health, she advanced her nursing education. She learned more about research, health policy, and public health and advanced her clinical expertise within cardiology as a CNS and NP. Nurse Alice’s education and personal experiences helped her become a well-respected and credible community health leader.
She eventually landed opportunities on national platforms and in the news media to become a TV medical correspondent. Each stop of her nursing journey provided her with unique, colorful, resourceful, well-rounded, and practical, real-life experiences that have molded Nurse Alice into the nurse leader she is today.
Minority Nurse chatted with 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, with over 23 years of experience about the need for community education, how to make a difference in nursing, being a health advocate, her poignant story about her connection to the ER, the endless possibilities for creating a job in nursing, why nursing needs all of the brightest minds and kind-hearted people, and more.
Learn Nurse Alice’s Secret Sauce for Being a Happy Nurse and Loving Your Nursing Career
The ANA’s theme for National Nurses Week this year is “You Make a Difference.” You’re making a difference in nursing as the Chief Nursing Officer and correspondent for Nurse.org and host of the podcast “Ask Nurse Alice,” a medical correspondent for NBC LA, a family nurse practitioner, clinical nurse, and a mom, author, and health advocate. What is your secret for juggling it all?
The secret sauce is I love what I do in different ways. They’re the same. But there’s a common thread of education and community service, which is something that fills my bucket. I enjoy community education and talking to other people. And my mantra is that I love to talk to people before they become my patients, just because I’ve seen so much of the devastation as a daughter and mother. It’s different when I’m on one side of the bed rails taking care of a patient, but when I’m on the other side, and it’s my loved one in the bed, it’s a vulnerable place to be in. So I like to talk to people to prevent their issues as much as possible so they can have a quality of life. So I love doing what I do as an extension. It’s patient education, using different platforms, like on television with NBC, on a podcast, through Nurse.org, or blogs. I feel so lucky, so blessed to love what I do. Now, some parts of nursing are challenging, but overall, I love what I get to do. I’m like, wow, this is so cool.
Your work makes a difference in the lives of so many every day. What are some ways that nurses can make a difference?
There are numerous ways in which nurses can make a difference. There are nearly 4.4 million of us now, and if we could all divide and conquer. And I would like to empower nurses to think about their passion. What are you good at? What’s your lane? There are so many different ways that we can approach this. But one of the things I think nurses need to do is take care of the patient inside of those hospital walls or those clinics. We must cover so much groundwork, strategizing, and working with other groups and disciplines outside hospital walls. Yes, people come to the hospital for care, but that’s already after something happened. We don’t want to work ourselves out of a job, but we want to care for people so well that they don’t need to come here. And to do that, we need to swing the pendulum and focus on preventative care, health promotion, disease identification, and early intervention because we want to keep people outside the hospital. Nurses need to get out in the communities to educate and become patient advocates in whatever area they wish. Advocate for their patient’s best interests—advocating for what will be better for their care, a more efficient and effective work system, and better work conditions. Because when you have happy nurses, you have happy patients.
You talk about happy nurses. However, nurses must cultivate and maintain optimal mental and physical health to affect change in their patients. What are some things that nurses should be doing to ensure they’re healthy to provide the best patient care possible?
Nurses and healthcare providers know exactly what to do because we tell our patients what to do. But yet, we don’t always do those things for ourselves. We’re so focused on caring for others that we don’t fill our cups. So nurses need to allow themselves to embrace and recognize we are consumers of healthcare too. So when we’re talking about our patients, we’re taking care of our patients too. And I think somewhere along the line, nurses and doctors over here, their patients over there. Nurses and doctors are patients, too, right? So we must ensure we’re doing our annual physical and getting our mental health checks. That’s something that even the whole general public misses altogether. The pandemic highlighted many things, but nurses were going through the mud. It’s such a place of being happy to help people but simultaneously feeling devastated because we are asked to do more with less in a situation where we were fighting the Invisible Man before we understood what COVID is. It’s a profession that’s predominantly women. Many of us are mothers, so we’re also taking care of children and always heard stories about the woman being the rock of the home and making sure everyone else is cared for. So we must allow ourselves some grace and recognize that we are also patients. We need just as much physical wellness, mental wellness, respite care, relaxation, and de-stressing as the next person, and if we don’t do that, we will find ourselves being someone’s patient.
Nurses were the heroes throughout COVID. So what can nursing do to honor nurses who are leading, excelling, and innovating our healthcare systems and the communities they’re practicing in?
Something that we as nurses can do is celebrate each other to support one another. The American Nurses Association is so powerful. They’re able to move legislation and lobby and get things done. There are fewer physicians than nurses, yet nurses have been so fragmented. We have the AMA, but not everyone’s a member. But if we were more unified and took our collective voice to support different initiatives, we could be more powerful in moving important legislation and changing practices for the better, not just for the nursing profession, but for the patient.
To lead and excel in nursing, we have to support one another. That’s one part of it. The other part is that we must also learn to play well in different sandboxes. Because a lot of what we do as nurses are inward driven, nursing school and nursing education, you have this whole larger healthcare conversation happening adjacent to us. And we can’t just be side to side. We must jump into that sandbox, join the conversation, and collaborate. Historically, nurses haven’t been invited. So it’s essential that as we move forward, and we move our profession forward, we need to be more politically savvy and more strategic in how we work with other agencies and groups. Because overall, many groups outside of nursing all have the same goal of improving patient outcomes, improving healthcare, and decreasing chronic illnesses. So working nurses need to unify our voices and learn how to strategize and work with other groups to move the needle on important health initiatives.
To move the needle on important healthcare initiatives, nurses must leverage every opportunity for professional development. So what are the best ways for nurses to access resources and insights to guide their professional development?
This starts in nursing school, but I know nursing school is jam-packed. But early on, as soon as we enter nursing, we need to learn the importance and significance of finance, budgeting, and strategy working with other groups. Because when I went to nursing school, we were taught to care for the patient. It doesn’t matter how much this costs, or don’t worry about anyone else. You focus on the patient. This practice has blinded many of us, not realizing that we can work smarter instead of harder if we collaborate and network with other groups, agencies, and disciplines to share some of our resources. There’s no point in nursing establishing a committee to do all this work independently while another group is doing it. And we’re both doing work but not making as much progress. If we worked together, we could move that needle further. But in nursing school, that’s not necessarily one of the priorities and teachings. But as we grow in our career ladder, we need to foster experiences and learning opportunities that teach us how to do that networking and the collaboration that happens in an interdisciplinary setting. And also in the back of our mind being business and finance savvy to understand that. This is in the patient’s best interest, and B and C might be good considerations considering finances and resources.
What do you recommend nurses do to excel and lead in their nursing careers or inspire others in their nursing journey?
I’m joining a professional organization, and there’s AMA, but then there’s also your specialty nurse organization. I’ve always been a part of my professional organizations and participated in events remotely and in person. I’ve always been a part of my professional organizations, and I’ve participated in events remotely and in person. The synergy happening in that room when you have a nurse or an ER nurse from California, an ER nurse in New York, and you’re discussing situations and can hear like, oh, wow, that’s how you handled that situation. Now that’s the process. Oh, let me bring that practice back to my facility. And it’s an opportunity to share evidence-based practice and talk about the latest research. Iron sharpens iron to build our community and engage with one another.
I did something beneficial for me, and I hope it’ll help someone else. As someone who was very cardiovascular health-focused, my love, my number one love and passion, I was a volunteer for the American Heart Association first and still am for several years. I take my expertise as a nurse and my knowledge about cardiovascular health and work with the American Heart Association to help identify programs and processes that specific communities need to improve patient outcomes to get people to check their blood pressure, eat better diets, and things like that. I was often the only nurse in the room, but work with people of different interests. These are all community folks convening together for the sake of wanting to improve cardiovascular health. But it opened my eyes to what happens in our communities. I know hospital stuff, and I know some clinical things, and I know those healthcare organizations. Still, when a grocery store owner is so interested in cardiovascular health and wants to put on events at their store and do a cooking demo, it opened my eyes to creative ways to do patient education and empower the community to take charge of their health. We have many opportunities to expand and grow our skills and knowledge outside our nursing organizations.
You mention engaging with the community. What are some ways for nurses to better engage with the community besides joining nursing organizations?
For example, I did community service with the American Heart Association. I also served as the health chair for my local NAACP and Urban League. I also volunteered at my son’s schools. Wherever there are people, there will be some health issues. Someone might fall and break their knee, and as nurses, even if you’re a NICU nurse, or labor and delivery nurse, if someone slips and hurts their knee, you will know some basic fundamental things to stabilize that patient. When COVID hit, all know how to stop the transmission of infection. Every nurse was a great resource during the COVID pandemic, teaching different communities about preventing transmission and things you should do to protect yourself. So it’s essential for nurses first to identify their passion. What places are you going to, and what groups are you already part of? Maybe it’s something that’s happening at your church, perhaps it’s your daughter’s Girl Scout troop, and you can participate there. So there are just so many different opportunities. That’s one of the great things about nurses too. We’re so creative and innovative. I’m sure once you identify my passion and what groups I am a part of, you can probably list 100 ways you could help communities.
Talk about the importance of what nurses do beyond the bedside: advocacy, shaping public policy, serving on an organization’s board, and having a seat at the table.
It’s critical that nurses, while we are at the bedside, do as much as possible to share with the public, the community, and our politicians what we do and how we can contribute. Yes, I can start an IV, but then I can also help you strategize an effective plan or bill to improve the quality of school lunches so our children aren’t becoming obese with the foods they’re eating at school. So beyond the bedside, we can advocate.
During the President Obama administration, I had the pleasure of volunteering with AARP. I went through this extensive AARP Volunteer Leadership Program and learned the Affordable Care Act inside and out. So when I came back from training in Washington, DC, I participated in different congresswoman’s town halls, talking about the ACA and seeing changes opening up. Here I am talking about health’s significance and its importance. Health is universal, and it impacts everyone, regardless of what side you sit on politically. But advocacy, I was able to do that, working with state politicians. That’s something that you can do to shape public policy. I live in Los Angeles. I would go to Sacramento, be there to talk to the general public as well, and go knocking on doors to talk about the significance of a particular bill, like the tobacco tax, to decrease the number of people smoking. So I participated in shaping public policy. You do that because the public makes up the voters. They’re the constituents that the politician needs to listen to, but also knocking on those doors and speaking directly to those politicians, and serving on executive boards. This is something I don’t necessarily like, but again, this is where you lean on what your passion is. And it might not be now, but many years from now. It’s so important that we have nurses sit on hospital boards and boards of insurance companies.
There’s a nursing process called ADPIE. And that’s short for assessment, diagnosis, planning, implementation, and evaluation. It’s like a Six Sigma. We go through a thought process whenever we provide patient care, and the ADPIE strategy can be applied anywhere. And if we can get nurses on these boards, especially decision-making boards, that will be key in helping to guide and shift and change policy, procedure, and practice not just in the hospital but outside in the community and how things are done. We know what patients need because we care for them 24/7 and listen to stories that physicians don’t hear because patients trust us. So that experience and thought process will be instrumental in helping to move and make changes outside of hospital walls.
You are a health advocate for your patients. How do you empower them to take control of their health, wellness, and lifestyle?
Whenever I get in front of people, to take their guard down so they don’t think I’m talking at them, I’ll start the conversation by reminding them I’m a patient too. I’ve been in the hospital too. This has happened to me. I’m a nurse, but I’m also a regular person just like you, so I’m not immune to sickness or illness or any of these things, just like I’m telling you about the significance of getting mental health checks and talking to a therapist, I need that too. We’re equal. We are all human beings. We are all subject to the same things. So I do that first to establish trust. Then, I take the time to understand the audience I’m speaking to because, in nursing, we’re taught to talk to the 80%. But there’s also going to be a 20%. Maybe this doesn’t apply or needs to be individualized to the patient. So I constantly individualize the information I’m presenting or talking about.
For example, suppose I’m at an event and speaking to a roomful of Asian people. When it comes to talking about diet, I’m making sure that while I’m talking about traditional foods, I’m also going to speak to those cultural and ethnic foods that are common. Doing that helps the people who are listening to me to feel seen. Many times, especially small, minority, and vulnerable groups feel like they’re talking over my head. They’re not talking to me because that doesn’t apply. My culture doesn’t do that. But when I can individualize it, they feel heard and seen, fostering trust. And when we can foster trust, people are more inclined to follow up with the care plan. So when you have that distrust or mistrust, patients will say, they said that, but I’m not doing that because there’s no trust. So I try my best to continue to support them. Sometimes there’s that one-time interaction with someone. And it’s like, here today, gone tomorrow. But we can still help one another through social media and other ways. And I think that’s why Facebook groups are so big. You can have a community of supporters even long past the initial interaction.
What do you like best about being a family nurse practitioner?
I didn’t plan to be a nurse practitioner, especially not in the emergency room. I wanted to be an accountant. When I was going to school, my dad fell sick. When he was in the military, he began smoking cigarettes because they would say to smoke them if you got him. So he picked up smoking, which led to high blood pressure, a heart attack, a stroke, and congestive heart failure. And ultimately, my dad died in the emergency room from a massive heart attack and went into sudden cardiac arrest. Now being the eldest, I would help my mom care for my dad and things like that. I’d always question why this didn’t make sense. And it was because, at the time, providers weren’t communicating effectively or in a way that my dad understood or that my family understood because we weren’t healthcare professionals. We didn’t know that particular hospital had many patients and was under-resourced. And unfortunately, it’s one thing we don’t necessarily like about healthcare, but we’ve all heard the stories about ERs being so busy, and then someone dies in the hallway while waiting to be seen because they’re so understaffed. And so that was my situation with my dad.
I said I would be the best cardiac nurse in the world. And that’s when I set out to work with American Heart Association, anything and everything cardiovascular. I’m doing it as volunteer work. I don’t care. I want to learn it all. So I can teach and empower the community so this doesn’t happen to them. I worked in ICU critical care, telemetry, and all these places, and I’ve worked in home health everywhere. I never wanted to work in the emergency room because it was too painful. So fast forward. I got frustrated with not having prescriptive authority, and in my journey, I ultimately went back to become a nurse practitioner and landed in the ER. And it was a place I never wanted to work because it was too painful. But now I can redeem things for my father because I’m now that provider and will be so attentive. I’m not going to let you die in the hallway. We know that sometimes people come in the ER and feel their symptoms are dismissed –medical gaslighting–and we’re not doing any of that. So I get to be the provider and care for someone like my dad. Hopefully, in my attentiveness, and because I care so much because of being a patient advocate, I can do as much as possible not to have those outcomes. I can’t control it all the time, but I can do my best to prevent those things from happening.
Do you think education level and specialties play a role in a nurse’s job satisfaction and navigating your career?
More education puts you in a position for opportunities you may not have as an associate degree nurse versus a doctoral-prepared nurse. And then also along the lines, it’s not just the letters behind your name but the quality of education. That’s what you’re learning in the program. As someone who’s gone back for more, I started with the LPN certificate and then ADN, and I initially thought a nurse was a nurse. So along that journey, I learned more about evidence-based practice research leadership, performance improvements, how to be more politically savvy, strategize, negotiate, work with and have crucial conversations with stakeholders, and learn more about budgeting, finance, and cost avoidance. So those are important elements of nursing education that you learn along the way. You’ll still get frustrated with some things, but you’re better equipped with tools and how to navigate those rough waters. So I think education and specialty training, like getting your certification if you work in critical care, having your CCRN or if you’re an emergency room nurse and having your CEN because, in that certification, you’re tested on a series of clinical situations, medication scenarios with how you would manage certain conditions. And when you work in one hospital, you might not have exposure to something. If you go back for your certification, you will have been exposed to multiple relevant things within your specialty. So if a high-risk, low-volume case comes into your hospital, you’ll know how to manage it. So education certification plays a role in job satisfaction and career navigation.
Nursing is an admired and honorable profession, and nurses have been ranked as the most honest profession 21 times, yet nurses need help to persist in their field. So what can nursing do to save itself and progress forward?
We must maintain the integrity of our nursing education. There have been many discussions about compact states and nursing schools, some not so good, some great as of late, but we mustn’t have a nursing shortage. Yes, we need more bodies, but how will we get there? We won’t get there by lowering the entry standards to nursing programs because it’s still critical and life dependent. We’re taking care of people’s lives, so we don’t want to water down the requirements for nursing school. That’s not how we’re going to solve the nursing shortage. While you may get more people to care for patients, how does that affect the quality of patient care? In the end, if you’re pushing nurses through just trying to get them through, we need to focus on investing in our nurse educators and getting more of them. Then attract the best of the best and the brightest because if you want students to learn about critical care, you need the practicing critical care nurse, not the retired 20-year retired critical-care nurse teaching it. But you’re only going to attract them with competitive salaries. Working at the bedside, for the most part, does pay more than working as an educator. So we must look at how we will improve nursing in that sense. And see what else as far as saving itself. That will be a key and foundational thing we must take care of. And then the other pieces.
As nurses, we need to move beyond the bedside. And I don’t mean abandoning patient care. We need people in patient care, but there may be creative opportunities. For example, some larger academic organizations allow their nurses to work at the bedside. Then for their community service for a certain amount of hours, they are compensated or given other points or a reward system to do things in the community. So to move the needle forward, we need one foot at the bedside and one foot beyond the bedside. So we’re straddling the fence. But I know it sounds like a daunting task, but we can do it. We have to look at our resources. And it’s not a game of checkers. This is the game of chess we’re playing. But if there’s anyone that can pull this off, nurses can. We’re the largest segment of healthcare workers; when we talk, people should listen.
What are your words of wisdom for nurses currently in the profession and others considering becoming a nurse?
First, I want to say we need you. We need anyone and everyone passionate about taking care of patients. That is the primary charge. I know it’s a reliable profession. But, most importantly, you have to want to care for patients. And that caring is going to look a little bit different for everyone. Some people say I can’t stand the sight of blood or I can’t do this. I want people to understand that, yes, there are some fundamental things that you will have to learn. But we have nurses in government. We have nurses in politics. We have nurses in education. We have them in public health. We have them in schools.
Take your pick. There are so many options. Nursing is one of the few professions you can enter where everyone has a standard education, and we all pass a standardized test, the NCLEX. But once you do, that sky’s the limit. And I had a mentor tell me, Alice, wherever there is pain and wherever there are people, there will be problems, so you can create your job. During the pandemic, we’ve seen many nurses leave the bedside, some are still at the bedside, but they’ve created their jobs. Some are still in patient care, but it looks slightly different. There are so many problems and plenty of work to go around. We need all the best and the brightest minds and kind-hearted people. We need you.