I don’t often talk about what I do – like my paycheck job, the job that pays for food, rent, and children’s college tuition. But today, because it is my biggest and busiest day of the year, I want to talk about what I do. Because I have found my niche — as a nurse in public health working with patient navigators and community health workers.
I have always loved that I am a nurse. I have always worn the title RN or Registered Nurse with deep pride. First because I couldn’t believe I actually made it through school;second because I love the profession. It challenges my weaknesses and gives voice to my strengths.
But though I have always loved being a nurse, I’ve not always been a good nurse. There was the fear factor that I would do something wrong in my early days, there was an insecurity in my skill set, a sense that I still didn’t really know where I fit as a nurse.
While living overseas in Pakistan and Egypt I worked sporadically – private duty cases, teaching childbirth education, and accompanying women during labor and childbirth.
When we moved to the United States I began working as a visiting nurse, going into homes and caring for patients who had just been released from the hospital. I was restless. I knew that clinical nursing was only half the picture of what I wanted to be doing.
It was during that time I made a job change and discovered public health. Public health allowed me to use my clinical skills as well as my creativity in developing programs and presentations to use in communities. I learned more about the big picture of health and why it matters. It allowed me to focus on underserved communities, communities that don’t have as many resources like immigrant and refugee communities, like poor minority communities. I began to understand more about working with people who have the greatest need and where, with the least amount of money, you can make the biggest impact. I ended up specifically working in preventative health screening – breast, cervical, colorectal, and prostate screening. Connecting patients to doctors and clinics so that instead of waiting until a cancer lump grew and the cancer spread, the patient would be screened early; so that instead of coping with chemotherapy and drastic life changes, they would have a minor procedure.
I found my niche in a space where I began educating community health workers and patient navigators, helping them see their natural abilities as valuable and adding clinical knowledge and other skills so they could work in their own communities and effect change. These men and women were bilingual and multicultural, but often without opportunities for higher education they struggled to find a place where those skills mattered. They are from all over the world and had made their way by various paths to the United States. They hail from Spain and Brazil, Portugal and Dominican Republic; Puerto Rico and China; Bangladesh and Somalia; the Sudan and Haiti. And they are finding their own niche in a country that is far different from the countries and places where most of them grew up.
So today we hold a conference that allows these patient navigators and community health workers to come together and learn, to come together and present what they are doing, to come together and be celebrated, to realize that they are a valuable part of our health care system.
But back to the niche – an amazing thing has happened through this process. I realize that the skills of communicating and negotiating across cultures are used regularly in this job. Those skills I felt would lie dormant and not be used again now allow me to build relationships and connections, encourage and voice understanding of the experiences of both patients and community health workers. Because all of us are outsiders that have gone through the process of adjusting to an unfamiliar world, working to carve out a niche where we can use who we are to make a small difference in the lives of some of the most vulnerable in our communities.
If you are interested in hearing from some of the people I work with about the amazing work they do take a look at this video that we are showing today at the conference. It’s about 8 minutes long and includes both animation and stories from the community health workers. It was created by my son, Micah.