This post was originally published on Sacramento Observer
By Genoa Barrow
Whether caring for psychiatric patients in the hospital or in the streets, bandaging protesters’ wounds, Asantewaa Boykin is literally nursing the community back to health.
The activist in her was born of being Black in America. The nursing, she gets from her mama. “My mother was a homecare provider, so for me, going all the way through and becoming an RN was in a way, homage to her and the work she did,” shared Boykin, who works at the UC Davis Medical Center.
Nursing has long been seen as a noble profession for women. Boykin’s mother worked for several agencies and for clients receiving care through the In-Home Support Services Program.
“That work, especially back when she was doing it, was acceptable work, especially for Black women who otherwise didn’t have education,” said Boykin, who works in UCD’s emergency department and helped create a unit for better treatment of outpatients utilizing space that had been phased out as an emergency room.
“Previously, a lot of our psych patients were just kind of hanging out in the hallway,” Boykin said. “That is one, not therapeutic and two, that environment is super stimulating, meaning there’s people who just got shot being wheeled down the hall past you. That kind of thing. They brought me on to just try to help figure out what would be the most therapeutic environment with the space that we had available to us.”
The unit was started two years ago and Boykin sees the difference daily.
“We’re able to discharge patients more readily than we did when they were sitting in the hallway in the ER because they actually are able to get some rest, take their medication, talk to their family on the phone, talk to a psychiatrist. When you’re in a hallway as people walk by, it’s not private. You really can’t express the things that you’re really feeling,” she said.
The change has also resulted in more patients going home or into alternative housing rather than inpatient facilities.
“I’ve seen a lot more people go to transitional housing or crisis housing instead of going to another facility, and I think that we’ve seen a lot less assaults. We call them codes, like when someone who’s on a hold tries to leave and we have to physically prevent them from doing that. Or when there’s actual violence by those folks, we’ve seen a lot less of that.”
Boykin admitted that the last two years being a nurse during the coronavirus pandemic have taken their toll on her own mental state. She now talks to a therapist regularly.
“I got some really good insight. I think our brains work in a certain way, especially with emergency room nurses. You have to always be assessing, looking for something that is wrong, looking for something that is off so we could treat that or see any impending problems coming ahead,” she said.
“It causes our brains to constantly be on and there’s this threshold where that part of your brain can go off. I don’t think a lot of us do that. I have a hard time turning that brain off. The hypervigilance is a lot. I think COVID heightened it. Now, we have to have that same hypervigilance when we’re in the grocery store, when we’re anywhere, especially in the beginning because we had no idea what we were dealing with.”
Those who work in the ER have been on the pandemic’s dangerous frontlines. Boykin recalled what UCD was like at the height of the biggest public health crisis in recent history.
“Initially, the ER wasn’t empty; the waiting room was empty, which was odd because sometimes we can have like 50-60 people in the waiting room and all the beds are full,” she shared. “To have an ER where there’s no one in a waiting room was like a ghost town. With the lockdown, folks were not driving back and forth to work, so there were no car accidents. Folks were not interacting with other people. They weren’t going to the bar and getting messed up and then getting punched. There were just less traumas.
“When people did come in they were petrified in general, no matter what they were coming in for. They didn’t want to get sick,” she added.
Boykin recalled the “eerie” nature of being in the emergency department.
“There was a lady we were taking care of. I went to lunch, came back and she was intubated. Just like that, in no time.”
That was before the Omicron variant.
“I wished people wouldn’t come because it was so contagious,” Boykin shared. “It ran through our staff like crazy. I caught it, even though I’m vaccinated.”
At UCD, she said, vaccination is not mandatory, but essentially it is.
“If you don’t get vaccinated, you’ve got to go get tested every three days,” she said. “Nobody wants that thing shoved up their nose every three days.”
Boykin said burnout is real.
“I think anyone who does care work, whatever form that is, you only have so much to give,” she said. “It’s depleting on a lot of levels, emotionally.”
She can’t divulge some of the trauma she has seen due to the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), which protects patients’ privacy, but said dealing with the fallout from area shootings and community violence can be traumatic for medical personnel.
“It’s really hard to explain to folks the way that those incidents sit on you,” Boykin shared.
How does the healer heal?
“I paint. It helps me kind of make sense of the world,” she said. “I write. I’m seeing a therapist, which wasn’t a thing before the pandemic. And now I am also dealing with feeling like this whole ‘essential worker’ thing was propaganda. The word ‘essential’ was the propaganda. It’s more like ‘disposable.’ We were the folks that couldn’t say, ‘Oh, I can’t today.’ I didn’t have a choice in all that. Even though I chose my profession, in putting myself at risk, I didn’t have an option. I had to go.”
When Worlds Collide
Boykin is co-founder of the Anti-Police Terror Project (APTP), an organization “committed to the eradication of police terror in all of its forms.” Her work as a nurse crosses into what she does as a community activist.
“In recent years, it’s the same,” Boykin said. “When you see people hurting and you are a care worker, someone who feels called to do that work, you want to do something to change the condition that caused that person to hurt, whether it be systemic racism, police violence, a stroke, not having access to healthy food … you want to try to ‘take care of’ them. At the core, I am a care worker and it shows up doing anti-police work, anti-police brutality work.”
“Being a Black person in a Black body,” Boykin said she saw negative interaction with police become prevalent in her formative years. She recalled a situation where it hit home. She was in her early 20s, working as a licensed vocational nurse in San Diego.
“I worked two shifts back to back and I was on my way home and my music was really loud because I was trying not to fall asleep behind the wheel,” she recounted. “A police officer goes to pull me over and my mama didn’t raise no fool, so I pulled over in a parking lot that was full of people. By the time I stopped my car, he had already gotten out of his car and put a gun to my head.”
The officer saw Boykin, who had a head full of long locks, and mistook her for a man. He was prepared to treat her as he would a Black man. When he saw the stethoscope around her neck, however, his demeanor changed.
“He put his gun down,” she said.
“There was this realization that somehow this profession now makes me human, whereas my skin did not. He was ready to shoot me, because I’m doing what is safe for me, but then, once he realized that I belong to this profession, in some way he felt that it was OK. It was in that moment that I decided I was going to use that privilege as a nurse to fight for my people.”
Boykin is the program director of Mental Health First, a mobile response team created by the APTP when the group noticed a trend of people getting killed while in the midst of a mental health crisis. Mental Health First has been vocal about removing police as first responders to mental health crises and is working on alternative solutions. They also volunteer as street medics during demonstrations.
“One of the first protests that I attended was in Oakland,” Boykin said. “It was immediately after Oscar Grant had been murdered. I didn’t understand how health care work existed inside of those phases, but there came a time where I found myself doing medicine in that protest setting – neutralizing tear-gas, carrying people off because they got hit with something. I did not invent this intervention; there were folks who were doing that work long before I was even born. I don’t claim to have a stake in that area of medicine, but that’s where I found myself, even in the midst of protesting or freedom fighting, whatever we call me nowadays, I was still being a nurse.”
Because people would ask her how to control bleeding or what to do when certain things happened if the protest turned violent, Boykin created a trauma-centered first-aid training that is replicated by both the APTP and Mental Health First.
Like many in the nursing field, Boykin is a natural nurturer. She shows her face in a lot of different spaces. Coffee helps, she joked.
“I’m trying to be intentional about being a truth teller, so some of it is obligation, guilt,” she said, turning serious. “Feeling like I have to give even in spite of myself, even if it’s harmful to my own health or physical health. But what’s beautiful about that, though, is being able to shift out of that and to show myself and my loved ones the same compassion that we’re screaming that the community at large needs. Creating these kinds of spaces gives us as individuals the room to even contemplate those kinds of things.”
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