Adwoa Blankson-Wood is speaking up in terms of what it’s like to be a black nurse. It’s been a difficult year for many of us, but black providers are grappling with painful conversations about race, police brutality, and systemic inequality as the coronavirus continues to decimate black and brown communities.
Blankson-Wood is an ER nurse in the city of Los Angeles. She recently published an op-ed in LAist magazine about what it’s been like to work on the front lines throughout the pandemic during a year of racial reckoning across the U.S.
It’s an essential read for nurses everywhere about bridging the divide in and out of the emergency room.
“Our Hearts Were Broken”
She recalls a night in March 2019, a full year before the pandemic began, when rapper and activist Nipsey Hussle was brutally murdered in L.A. Authorities say he was shot outside his store, Marathon Clothing, on the city’s south side by a man named Eric Holder, who had confronted Hussle earlier in the day. Hussle planned to turn the shopping center where he once sold his mix CDs into a mixed-use residential and commercial center benefiting the black community. Hussle left behind a 2-year-old son and 10-year-old daughter.
When Blankson-Wood heard about the incident, she knew the rapper was going to wind up in the ER where she works. She says in the piece, “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.”
She includes several phrases from her fellow nurses and colleagues at the time, including:
“This gangbanger was killed by the streets.”
“Play stupid games, win stupid prizes.”
“What do they expect?”
She remembers, “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 she realized her colleagues didn’t really see her as a black woman who might have black sons, a black sister or black brothers, or a black woman that loves black men.
“I wasn’t black at all. I was just a nurse.” She writes.
A Year Unlike Any Other for Black Nurses
A year later, the coronavirus put nearly all of California on lockdown. The pandemic was tearing through communities of color with stories of racial profiling and protests dominating the news.
“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.”
Blankson-Wood writes that she was used to avoiding difficult conversations at work:
“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.”
A Loaded Question
In June 2020, George Floyd was murdered by a police in Minneapolis, MN, setting off a wave of protests across the country. Blankson-Wood remembers treating the protesters in the ER for rubber bullet wounds and tear gas, but she quickly realized the other providers saw the events differently.
She recounts overhearing a conversation between hospital staff, one of the EMTs, and a LAPD officer. “What do these people want?” they said. That’s when she knew they had missed the point of the protests all together.
She passed a colleague that she loved and admired in the hallway to hear them say, “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 before she eventually walked away to cry in the ambulance bay alone.
Over the last year, she says the question, “How are you?” has become a loaded one. As a nurse, she was used to asking patients how they were feeling, not the other way around; but her answer 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,’” she adds.
When she would continue to ask patients how they were feeling, this once-innocuous question would cause people to burst into tears after months of quiet suffering.
“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.”
Despite everything she’s been through over the last year, she’s grateful for the experiences she’s had in and out of the ER.
“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.”