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As A Black Nurse At The Pandemic's Frontlines, I've Had A Close Look At America's Racial Divisions

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Nurses and healthcare workers attend a Black Lives Matter rally in front of Bellevue Hospital on June 4, 2020, in New York City. (Johannes Eisele/AFP via Getty Images)
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In March 2019, Nipsey Hussle was brutally murdered in South L.A. I remember knowing immediately that he would be transported to the hospital where I work. I knew to expect lingering paparazzi and news when I got to the hospital. I knew to expect buzz in the air, the aftermath of a critical and high-profile trauma. What I didn't expect were the comments.

"This gangbanger was killed by the streets."

"Play stupid games, win stupid prizes."

"What do they expect?"

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Candles are lit during a memorial service to honor Eritrean American rapper, Nipsey Hussle, on April 6, 2019 in Addis Ababa. He died March 31, 2019 after a shooting in Los Angeles near a clothing store he owned. (Michael Tewelde/AFP via Getty Images)
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I was shocked, and I was hurt. These were my co-workers, my friends, and they were acting like the death of this Black man had no effect on me.

I looked around and I saw the pain of his death in the eyes of every Black patient that I treated that night. We felt the loss of another young Black man with a promising future to gun violence. Our hearts were broken, but it was just another trauma to most of the hospital staff. That's when I realized that my race was inconsequential, they did not see me as a Black woman who has been repeatedly traumatized by the murder of Black men by police and gun violence. Or, as a Black woman who loves Black men and has Black brothers, a Black father and will one day bear Black sons. I wasn't Black at all. I was just a nurse.

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A (BLACK) NURSE

Last March, Los Angeles shut down in the first of multiple failed attempts to control the spread of the coronavirus. At the same time, the rest of the country was experiencing the reality of life as a non-white person in the "land of the free." When protests, riots, counter protests turned violent, news outlets covered them ad nauseum. Every time I entered a room where people were talking about police brutality, or the latest video of a so-called Karen attacking a Black person for existing in a way that was offensive, the air was tense, thick with unspoken words.

My interactions with patients went from my inquiry of their chief complaint, to them asking me how I was doing "with everything." "Everything" depended on who was asking. With my Black patients, there was an understanding that this had been our story for so long that we had all but given up on the idea of change, knowing that protests didn't promise that. With non-Black people of color, there was solidarity, an exchange of looks, as if to say, "I see you."

Most of the time, I was able to frame conversations within the context of the virus and not race, telling patients that we were doing our best, trying to be the heroes they kept calling us. But I was dying inside. I had spent my whole life avoiding difficult conversations in the workplace, keeping everything superficial because, to be honest, nobody understands what it means to be Black in America, unless they are Black in America. It was easier to find solace in my job, easier to be just a nurse, than to be a Black nurse.

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(LEFT) ER nurse Adwoa Blankson-Wood pictured near the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, wearing scrubs and a surgical mask; By October, Blankson-Wood was required to don an N-95 mask, protective goggles, a head covering and full PPE to interact with patients. (Photos courtesy Adwoa Blankson-Wood)

I was doing a good job faking it at work until patients whose clothes reeked of pepper spray and who had rubber bullet wounds began filling the ER. The conversation between some LAPD officers, EMTs and hospital staff turned to, "What do these people want?" I retreated to my section, knowing that even asking this question meant that they had missed the point of the protests altogether. It wasn't until I walked in on a conversation and heard someone I loved and respected say that I saw red.

"The difference is that white people don't riot for no reason and Black people do."

I responded, "Yes the f*** they do. Look what the f*** happened when the Eagles won the Superbowl! They call you 'rowdy,' and they call us 'criminals.'"

There was a long pause...

I looked out at this sea of faces and realized that my own wasn't reflected there. As bad as these onlookers felt, no one UNDERSTOOD what was happening. I told them that the conversation was inappropriate, and we had work to do. I walked away and went to the ambulance bay to cry.

"HOW ARE YOU?"

Over the past year, "How are you?" has become a loaded question. Pre-pandemic, it was one that we asked with no real expectation of an honest and substantive answer. Now, over a year into the most deadly health crisis in our lifetimes, we put the emphasis on the "are." We sometimes add the slight turn of the head, and direct eye contact, causing people to burst into tears as they actually take a second to search for the answer to what used to be the most innocuous of questions.


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As a nurse, I ask this question at least a hundred times a shift, usually looking for a specific answer: a change in condition, improvement of symptoms. It's how I gauge how my patients are doing, and how I check in with them. In May, George Floyd's killing rocked the world. Trauma that I was intimately familiar with, of watching someone die, was exposed. I remember seeing him become incontinent and knowing that those base neural functions fail when your brain is nearing death. I cried for him. I cried for myself. I cried for my father, my brothers, my partner, my future sons. Then I dried my tears, hugged my brother a little longer before I left, and I went to work. Even through all of this, the pandemic was still raging, and the world still needed me to be a nurse.

I have always been able to connect well with people. I recognize that the average person is having an awful day if they end up in the ER. There's a tone of voice, body language and vocabulary that I naturally possess which helps me calm patients. Then there are the times that someone comes up to me and says, "Adwoa, can you come do that thing you do?" Sounds like the beginning of a sexual harassment lawsuit right? It's not, but it IS what my coworkers say to me when they want me to use my Blackness as a means to connect with a patient, usually an angry Black one.

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Nurses and health care workers attend a Black Lives Matter rally in front of Bellevue Hospital on June 4, 2020, in New York City. (Johannes Eisele/AFP via Getty Images)

I have experienced a range of emotions around these requests: anger, disgust and remorse. it almost always depends on the person requesting and why. The person asking must first realize that they're asking me as a Black woman, not as a nurse, because if any nurse could do it, they wouldn't have outsourced it to me. Secondly, they must realize that they are asking me to use the most sacred and precious part of my shared experience and identity to connect with this patient. And lastly, they must understand that I may very likely say no.

I am grateful for the dialogue that I've been able to have with my friends, my therapist and for my physical health. I'm grateful for the awareness that the past year has brought to Black lives, racial and socioeconomic injustices and gender inequality. I am annoyed by those who don't believe that we as Black health care workers experience racism. But it's on par with the feeling that nobody really understands what it means to be Black in America, unless they are Black in America.

* * *

This is for George Floyd, Ahmad Aubery, Elijah Mclain, Sandra Bland, Rashard Brooks, Breonna Taylor, Atatiana Jefferson, Stephon Clark, Botham Jean, Philando Castille, Alton Sterling, Freddie Gray and countless others.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Adwoa Blankson-Wood is the daughter of proud Ghanaian immigrants and was raised in Silver Spring, Maryland. She attended Grambling State University, a historically Black college, which inspired a deeper appreciation of the Black American experience along with her Ghanaian American upbringing. She is a devoted aunt, sister, daughter and member of The Century City Alumnae Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. Adwoa is passionate about her work as a registered nurse. In her free time, she enjoys community outreach, spending time with family and curling up with a book. She is overjoyed to share her experience here.