'You have patients say the N-word': Black nurses call for support against racism on the medical frontlines
Black nurses describe being called slurs and patients asking for white nurses to attend to them instead
Some days on the frontlines are harder than others.
For Ottawa nurse Temi Adegburin, one day will be etched forever in her mind — the day a patient refused her care because of the colour of her skin.
"I went to go help a colleague who needed assistance with a patient. We were both Black nurses and [the patient] was very upset. She said, 'You guys cannot help me. You need to find a white nurse,'" Adegburin told White Coat, Black Art producer Imani Walker.
At the time, Adegburin was working in a long-term care home in Ottawa. It was not the first time a patient had refused her care, but it was her colleagues' response to the incident that struck her.
"I was then going around, talking to other staff members and they said, 'Yes absolutely, you need to find her a white nurse and you need to cater to her needs.'"
Adegburin's experience speaks to both the larger issue of racism on the frontlines and a lack of support for racialized nurses. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Black nurses say they quickly realized the clapping on balconies, singing from rooftops, or being called a health-care hero wouldn't protect them from racism they experience on the frontlines.
"I may be a hero because we deal with racism every day, but not necessarily because of COVID. The fact that you can get out of bed every day, go to a workplace, still be insulted and come back the next day — for me, that's more heroic," said Adegburin, who is now almost two years into her career.
For months, Adegburin showed up to work, until mistreatment on the job became too overwhelming. Eventually, she left her job in long-term care for a new role as a public health nurse in Ottawa.
"It feels like more of an odd day when you don't get that treatment, you're like, why did no one call me the N-word today? What did I do? What did I do right or what did I do wrong?" she said. "It definitely isn't easy."
'There's deep-rooted racism'
Adegburin knows her story isn't uncommon. Her friend Abiola Akindele is a nurse in a hospital and a long-term care home in Ottawa. She knows this treatment all too well.
"You have patients say the N-word, make ignorant comments. I've had patients touch my hair many, many times. I've had patients speak to me in ways that are obviously not appropriate. I've had people say, 'Oh, I don't want a coloured nurse,'" says Akindele.
Despite this mistreatment, Akindele knows above all, her job is to provide care. If a patient gets aggressive, she'll leave for a moment to let them calm down. Then it's back to work.
"It goes beyond being Black; there's deep-rooted racism. I had a coworker, one day she just pulled me to the side and said, 'I just want to let you know that you're not alone in this. I even had to stop wearing my hijab to work,'" she said.
"She was telling me how many, many, many patients have refused her care, have yelled at her, have even touched her. They just disrespected her because of her hijab. She just had to stop wearing it to work, and she said if I saw her outside of work, I wouldn't even recognize her."
In June of 2020, the Registered Nurses Association of Ontario launched the Black Nurses Task Force in the wake of increased violence and acts of anti-Black racism, including the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin.
In December, the task force sent a letter to the College of Nurses of Ontario asking for race-based data to be collected to track how often Black nurses leave the field or report incidents of anti-Black racism.
"People are so driven by data — if we don't capture it, we don't know it's a problem," says Amie Varley, a nurse and co-host of The Gritty Nurse Podcast.
Varley and the Diversity, Equity, Inclusion Team at Niagara Health was able to create an internal reporting system that nurses can use to report racism and discrimination on the job.
She says there are other options to measure and change how nurses are treated on the frontlines, starting with the disruption of continuity of care. This means a nurse who is assigned a patient does not need to continue care with that patient if they are causing mental or physical harm. Both patient and nurse would be reassigned by supervisors.
"You may deal with racism and then the next day you're still assigned to the same patient. This is where policy comes into effect," said Varley.
"We need to talk to organizations to say nurses shouldn't be sent back in to that same patient to be retraumatized."
In an email to White Coat, Black Art, the Colleges of Nurses of Ontario said work on how to collect and analyze race-based data is planned for this year.
Call for mental health supports
When asked what could help Black and other racialized nurses on the job, Adeburgin and Akindele recommend having a designated Black counsellor for staff to talk to when they need support.
"[We need] someone there to help be our voice, because it's kind of hard when you as the staff or the employee, you're trying to speak up, you don't want to lose your job and things like that," said Adegburin.
Varley, who's been in the field for more than 10 years, said prioritizing the mental health of nurses is important, especially for younger nurses who have a hard time saying "no."
"Over time, I've learned to adopt a lot of coping mechanisms, some of which include, talking to my friends, exercising, swimming, just even reading a book, Netflix. I just like to take some time to unwind and relax every so often," says Akindele.
Varley said she hopes young nurses know that confronting racism on the frontlines shouldn't be their responsibility.
"Know your worth. Know your importance. You're not just a nurse; you're an individual," she said.
"Do your homework; learning doesn't stop when nursing school stops, especially when it comes to anti-Black racism."
About the producer
Imani Walker is a reporter and producer with CBC Radio's Doc Project and an associate producer with CBC Radio's Metro Morning in Toronto.
The documentary Abiola, Temi and Sophie was edited by Imani Walker and Jeff Goodes. It was made through the CBC Doc Mentorship program.
- An earlier version of this story incorrectly spelled Amie Varley's first name. This story has also been changed to reflect that it was both Varley and the Diversity, Equity, Inclusion Team at Niagara Health who were able to create an internal reporting system nurses can use to report racism and discrimination on the job.Mar 27, 2021 1:15 PM ET