Race and healthcare have a dark history together.
The 1932 Tuskegee Syphilis experiment is perhaps the most infamous example, when over 100 innocent black men were infected with the disease and died from its effects.
Racial inequity in healthcare continues, albeit in different forms. Poor communication, bias in medicine, and restricted access to treatment options are claims most commonly reported by minorities when talking about their experiences in healthcare.
On the front lines of that fight is the National Black Nurses Association. It formed in the 1970s after the American Nurses Association required its members to join through state nurse organizations. Those state organizations denied black nurses, which automatically eliminated them from being able to join the national association. Growing tired of the inequality, black nurses across the country stood in solidarity, and the Black Nurses Association was born.
Today, the Black Nurses Association has chapters all across the country, including one in Central Illinois.
"Nursing has a racist history. Our organization came about because of the discrimination and separation enforced by the American Nurses Association. But as a result, we're now able to advocate for people like us and get more minority voices out there as a whole," said Kyana Wilkinson, vice president of the Black Nurses Association of Central Illinois.
Wilkinson is a native of Chicago. She was exposed to the medical field by her mother, who encouraged her to become a doctor. But after losing her father to Lou Gehrig's disease a week before her senior year in high school, she decided to pursue nursing instead.
"Being with him during that process, meeting the nurses involved, and going to the hospital visits all played a role in me making the choice to go into nursing, because I get to see the patient more than the doctor and I can get to them in a capacity that's greater than anyone else."
Getting into nursing school was difficult for Wilkinson. After applying to a variety of institutions, she settled on Methodist College in Peoria and was one of four black students who received a degree in her class.
"At first, I tried to get into ISU's program but was told to not even apply because of the high requirements. When I looked at it, there weren't many black faces. That was almost a deterrent, but I kept going," she said.
Dr. Elaine Hardy, president of the Central Illinois chapter of the Black Nurses Association, recruited Wilkinson. Learning of its goal to help black nurses gain equal access for opportunity and serve as the voice for minorities in the field overall, Wilkinson was excited to join.
"In nursing school, there's not a lot of teachers or students who look like you. Going through with the Black Nurses Association helped me and those who want to get through and finish the nursing program become thriving nurses. We make a difference through students because we've been in their position and can help them get to the other side since we're thriving in our careers as well."
While Wilkinson loves her career, its tasks have continued to expose her to past issues of discrimination in medicine that still persist today.
"When I did my clinical trials, there was an instance where I saw a black man, and all the nurses kept saying he was a difficult patient. As a result, he wasn't seen. I went in to check on him, and saw he had many things that need to be taken care of, but they didn't have the patience or see things from his perspective. You don't have to have the same background as somebody to be able to relate to them. I wish that other nurses would take that into consideration when they take care of patients of color."
As a patient, having a nurse who looks like or understands you can play a massive role in the comfortability of care. Since some black people have such distrust in the system of today, Wilkinson said it is essential for the profession to be more open to hiring nurses of color.
"Just being able to see someone who can relay the information in a way that you can understand or be able to understand your lifestyle better makes a difference. Being a black person, I understand how hard it is sometimes to have the structure in your home as you wish you could when it comes to medicine, so I'll think of different techniques that can bring insight and more information to make sure the patient feels listened to,” she said.
“As a nurse you can't tell someone these things from the perspective of, 'This is wrong, you're not supposed to do this.' You have to change your approach and it has to come from a different place.”
Around 13.1% of America’s 3.2 million registered nurses are black, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s about on par with the rest of the U.S. workforce (12.3% black).
Today Wilkinson works in the neurological and progressive care unit at Advocate Bromenn Medical Center in Normal. She chose those areas to continue caring for patients who suffer from diseases like her father.
As issues persist in health care, Wilkinson said the Black Nurses Association continues to serve as a safe haven for those who fall victim to lack of opportunity and advocate for better care for minority patients overall.
To make its presence known in the community, BNA has hosted healthcare fairs, health counseling seminars, promoted healthy lifestyle habits and reached out to nurses at other schools in the area for collaboration, in order to create a safe space for all.
“We want to show that we are here and helping, and there are ways for you to be a part of us and help us grow as well,” Wilkinson said.
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