Just Ask A Black Nurse



The controversy stemming from the refusal of a white father to let a black nurse care for his newborn child has spurred a caldron of discussion throughout the country. Now don’t think this is an isolated incident: Virtually every black nurse in America has felt this sting against her or his skin color at some point in their careers. That we can now voice these offenses through legal redress is what has changed.

As a seasoned nurse, one of the pungent “seasonings” with which I was sprinkled was the constant fear of being rebuffed by patients who still held that black was beneath them. This fear sometimes morphed into negative situations and, occasionally diminished when a positive incident happened. Take the time when I was a student nurse completing a portion of my clinical studies at a Catholic hospital in Stockton, California, for example.

Nuns ran the place with a firm hand, as nuns historically did in the early seventies. When they grew old and unable to conduct the demanding duties of hospital administration, they retired to their residence on the hospital grounds. If ill and unable to care for themselves, the hospital provided a special wing and medical services for them, including assistance with their activities of daily living, or ADLs the medical term used for such care. I was not aware of this until the day came when my assigned patient was one who resided in this special wing. So, on approaching the patient’s room, I was nervous and unprepared for what I might find on entering it.

I stood in the doorway, medical record in hand, and peered into the patient’s room. It looked like any other hospital room--small, furnished with a hospital bed, bedside cabinet and portable over-bed tray. Take care of a nun? I asked myself. They’re holy people, married to Christ, and take their marriage vows seriously.  I knew this because one of my cousins, devoutly Catholic, was a nun.  

“Come on in child, I won’t bite. Nuns are people too, so don’t be shy. Just treat me like you do all of your patients.”

Relieved that my skin color was not an issue here, I completed my nursing duties quickly and efficiently, and was rewarded with the nun’s compliments about my professional skills. I left the room, ego intact, and felt certain that nursing was the right choice for the rest of my working years.

Then, there’s the reverse side of the coin. Once, through a lecture delivered by a master’s prepared nurse, I heard that persons of color endure over one hundred incidences of covert racism a day. In mulling her statement over in my mind, I had to disagree. Racist insults are a matter of perception, and perception differs from person to person. What I might perceive as a racist statement may mean nothing to another person and vice versa. We’re all blessed with our own peculiar set of idiosyncracies. Like snowflakes or grains of sand, our perceptions are as unique as are our personalities, environmental influences, mental health and a myriad of other factors that influence who we are as people and how we perceive our place in this chaotic, and beautiful, world. 

Balance is the key to stability--right?  So if we take just so much of this and not so much of that, we can be kind to ourselves and those that matter in our lives. That kindness will then multiply exponentially. Pay it forward--life demands little more than that.