Racial disparities in nursing

By Debbie Moore-Black, RN

I could give you several examples of racism that I have witnessed in my lifetime of nursing.
But there is one incident that always rears its ugly head.
Olisa.
Her name was passed down to her from her great great grandmother.
Her name meant “God’s promise”.

Olisa came from a long line of nurses. Her great great grandmother was a nurse/nanny/slave owned by some wealthy folks on their Southern plantation.
But the torch was passed on in her family for the love of nursing; one generation to the next.

Olisa was bright and funny and the first in her family to earn a BSN.
Tears from the entire family upon her graduation. Nursing cap, diploma, stripes and the Valedictorian of her nursing class.

Growing up, Olisa always knew she would be a nurse one day.
After graduation and passing her NCLEX exams with flying colors, she entered into a Residency program for new nurses who wanted the speciality of Intensive Care Nursing.

This was an aggressive, high acuity ICU at one of the best hospitals in this southern state.
Olisa loved nursing but through her journey in nursing school, it was the ICU that captured her.
Her dream of helping to save lives, to identify, report and implement the warning signs of a crashing patient. Of multi system organ failure.
Olisa was good and caught on immediately. The staff loved her. The ICU physicians loved her. The Respiratory Therapists knew that when she was on duty, it would be a good night even if it was the night from hell!!

After one year, Olisa was asked to be a charge nurse. With that came many responsibilities. Not only was she responsible for the nurses and their patient assignments, she had to be stellar in her skills and in the policies and procedures of this critical care unit.

For three years she was the charge nurse/staff nurse. She carried her name and her profession proudly. In honor of her family filled with generations of nursing.

Olisa decided she was competent and worthy to climb the corporate ladder in ICU and so she applied for an ANM position. (Assistant Nurse Manager).

But there was a new strange aura in this ICU.
New nurses replaced the vintaged experienced nurses. Management had sadly changed hands many times.
And her interviews for the ANM position were being stalled and then cancelled. And Olisa received explanations of “we are looking for someone from the outside.”
Or “we need someone with more experience.”

The excuses came one by one with upper management, and then she noticed her assignments along with her doing charge nurse had changed.
She now was given 2 dangerously high acuity ICU patients. Frequently. Somehow the camaraderie was lost on this team.
And then the whispers came. The degradation. The ethnic name calling. Intimidation.
The snide chants of “Go back to Africa.”

And as an accomplished and well respected ICU nurse that she had earned over and over again, suddenly she was being questioned and second guessing by her younger staff and by upper management. Even the patients and family members seemed to express this negatively toward minority nurses.

Olisa knew something was wrong. But she asked some of her other nurses she had known from her mentor program were they experiencing the same?
Interesting enough, there seemed to be a higher percentage of disrespect and disregard to nurses of color and ethnicity. Hispanic, Afro-American, Middle Eastern countries.
It was obvious that these minorities faced discrimination.
Leadership and mentoring promotions were denied.
And though the nurses not only went to upper management, they reported their findings to HR (Human resource department).
A blind eye and disregard was blatant.

Olisa knew it was time to be proactive.
After interviewing at several different hospital systems, she chose a progressive hospital system that encouraged diversity. Equality. And inclusion.
She sadly left what she thought would be her “professional home.”

And within several months at her new institution, her career blossomed. She became her positive and professional nurse that she always was. But because of the moral decay of the previous institution, she almost lost her way.

Olisa. “God’s promise”. She held her head up high. And honored the generations in her family that carried the torch for nursing.
She was proud of her accomplishments. Well earned and well deserved. Stellar.
And that shining star that she was and is could not be dimmed.