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Guarding the Nursing Profession

Race and Nursing

Published August 23, 2016 8:42 AM by Colleen Villamin
Racism has been increasingly present in the news lately. Whether you are behind the cause Black Lives Matter or All Lives Matter, nurses provide compassionate care and save lives of people of all races, religions, socioeconomic backgrounds, and genders. Cancer, heart disease, and diabetes do not discriminate and neither can we. Unfortunately, healthcare in America has not been historically colorblind. Nurses learn in school about the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment that used unethical research practices, which resulted in impoverished African American males with syphilis suffering and dying from the disease while researchers knowingly withheld treatment from the participants.

If you have not read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, I urge you to get a copy. The book details the story of a young African American mother of four who died of cervical cancer whose cells were collected and grown in cell culture. These cells lead to many medical advances that we benefit from today, such as the Polio vaccine, cancer treatments, and genetic mapping. What really struck me in this well-written story was the history of injustices in healthcare with the black community that goes back hundreds of years. This explains the distrust in the community with the healthcare system which results in not seeking care until symptoms are too severe to tolerate. Many studies address this issue, such as later stage breast cancer at diagnosis for African American women compared to Caucasian women.

Health literacy is another factor that stands out in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Henrietta's husband and cousins did not understand the seriousness of her diagnosis or what the radiation treatments would entail. Henrietta and her husband both dropped out of grade school to work on the tobacco farm and had low literacy. Now add the complex medical terms and consent "the doctor knows best" forms compounded by the norm in the 1950s. Patients back then had no Internet access to research their diagnosis and treatments. They did not question their doctors' judgment as they often do today. Combine that with rumors in the African American community that hospitals did "experiments" on black people, it is easy to see how frightened she and her family must have been-not knowing what to expect or what was going on.

Thankfully, we now have strict guidelines enforced by institutional review boards to ensure ethical research practices and provide informed consent in a literacy- and language-appropriate manner. Nurses at the front lines encounter individuals from all faiths, ethnicities, races, genders, and ages. We are perfectly suited to get to know our patients, identify how they learn best, discover their fears, and provide them with hope, knowledge, and encouragement. Each of us connects with people who are different from us and we grow because of it. I don't know the answers to racism, poverty, and injustice in our country, but I do know that we can be the positive force that lights the way for the future. We must treat each person as the unique individual they are with hopes, dreams, and fears. We must provide them with dignity, respect, and compassion. We need to avoid generalizing groups of people and realize that each family unit differs with their own strengths and challenges. What unites us as a people is the will to live and the desire to have more time with the people we love. That crosses all cultures.

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