Being a Black nurse in America sometimes means caring for patients while protecting them from racism at the same time.
This was the case for Naseema McElroy, a California-based labor and delivery nurse who demanded better care for Black moms and was fired shortly after.
“Nobody’s going to change [the medical system] for us,” McElroy, 41, told Word In Black in a video interview. “We have to do it ourselves.”
One day in March 2018, McElroy happened to be on the clock when her friend came in to give birth at the Oakland hospital where she worked.
Had they missed one another, McElroy wouldn’t have been able to save the mom from an unmedicated emergency C-section that could’ve been fatal.
The mother intended to have a vaginal birth after a previous Cesarean section (also known as a VBAC), but after being given an epidural during labor, a midwife called for an emergency C-section.
At that point, things moved dangerously fast, according to McElroy.
She watched her friend be dragged onto a gurney because her legs were numb from the pain medicine and then rolled into the operating room.
The mom’s catheter slipped out in the process, stopping the flow of medication.
McElroy said the rapid pace was due to a change of shift taking place. Some staff were clocking in while others were clocking out. The operating room was packed, and communication from the team was poor.
“There wasn’t any communication. So, that was a safety issue,” McElroy says. “You had two shifts of nurses, respiratory therapists, and doctors in the room.”
As a primary nurse, McElroy says the team was supposed to keep her up to speed on what was happening — and why — but they didn’t. So, she did what she felt was her only option to stop the surgery.
“I literally had to roll my body across her to stop them from cutting her open unmedicated,” she recalls. “I had to literally yell and call a hard stop and was like, ‘no, you are not about to cut her.’”
Moments later, the attending doctor walked in and noted that the birth actually wasn’t supposed to be an emergency C-section.
McElroy said her friend had no idea what was going on.
“She didn’t know her epidural had gotten pulled out,” she says. “It was just like a state of confusion. I just remember looking in her eyes and seeing how scared she was.”
A week later, McElroy addressed her concerns about the situation to the head of obstetrics, who was also a Black woman, but was disregarded.
Black pregnant women all over the country fear hospital experiences like this — or worse, dying because no one saved them.
In 2018, Black women were dying from pregnancy-related complications at two-and-a-half times the rate of white women. That remains the same today.
According to a 2022 study by the American Society of Anesthesiologists, Black women are 53% more likely to die in a hospital during childbirth, no matter their income level or type of insurance.
Systemic racism is the major cause behind these disparities.
After being dismissed, undertreated, violated, and ignored, Black mothers are leaving hospitals traumatized — if they make it out alive.
But sometimes, those who witness the neglect of Black women in hospitals are impacted, too.
Just a few weeks after supporting her friend, McElroy said she had to advocate for another pregnant woman whose pain was dismissed during labor. After witnessing both patients escape potentially fatal complications, she broke down mentally.
“I’m in the parking lot on my way to work every day crying like ‘this can’t be life,’” she says.
Her job referred her to a therapist who told her she needed to take time off because she was traumatized. But that never happened. Her employer denied her time off, so she called out sick.
She says she then received a notice that she was terminated for “being absent.”
McElroy chose to take a stand by filing a lawsuit. The process wasn’t easy. She says that her mental health was questioned, and she had a hard time finding witnesses to support her claims.
“When I was reaching out to people to validate my story, they would ghost because they were scared of losing their job,” she says.
The battle came to an end in 2020 when she won a settlement.
“We have to work together in order to change this because, like I said, nobody is going to do it for us,” she says.
McElroy may have been among the first nurses to gain national attention for her story, but many share her experiences.
The nurses went on to report that racist acts came from different parties — 70% from leaders, 66% from peers, and 68% from patients.
Of the nurses who challenged racism in the workplace, 64% said their efforts didn’t result in any change.
Like McElroy, over half of the nurses reported that racism in the workplace negatively affected their well-being.
The American Nurses Association (ANA) has been on a mission to address racism since it formed the National Commission to Address Racism in Nursing in 2020 following the murder of George Floyd.
Cheryl A. Peterson, vice president of the ANA Nursing Programs and a leader of the National Commission to Address Racism in Nursing, helped conduct the national survey on racism.
“We did a listening session where we heard the very painful words of nurses of color who talked about their experiences, both from their colleagues and systemically as employees, and then also from patients,” she told Word In Black in a phone interview.
The commission was created as a collaboration between ANA, the National Black Nurses Association, the National Association of Hispanic Nurses, and the National Coalition of Ethnic Minority Nurse Association.
One of its goals is to “develop strategies to actively address racism within nursing education, practice, policy, and research, including addressing issues of leadership and the use of power.”
The group plans to launch another commission focusing on funding programs and strategies addressing racism at the direct care level between nurses and patients.
“So, how are we talking about racism among nurses and trying to really address bias and really make improvements,” Peterson says.
Overall, as a registered nurse herself, she agrees that racism in nursing is an issue that must be addressed collectively by nurses.
“The reality is we’ve got racism in nursing, and it is doing harm to nurses of color, and it’s doing harm to the patients that we care for, and it’s doing harm in the communities in which we serve.”
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