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Speak Up! Doing It For Yourself is Doing It For Others: My Pre-Law Career as a New Nurse Manager

I was excited for my first nurse manager position. Unit 51 was a 20-bed medicine unit with the lowest patient scores in the hospital. I was ready to make it my project.

On my second day of work, my new boss, “Kitty” gave me the sister unit, Unit 52. I was now doing a job that for the previous sixty years took two people to do. This led to the first time I stood up to her. I reminded her that we agreed that I would only manage Unit 51, and at a pay cut from my previous position. She was unapologetic. She berated me and told me that I “lacked passion” and that “perhaps I was not a good fit for this hospital.” She then challenged me to go back to my old job.

I met with HR and showed them my offer letter. It only listed Unit 51, as did my business cards. They promoted me to Unit Manager II along with a raise (a mere $3/hour). When I did the budget later, I realized Kitty saved the hospital about $150,000 by combining these positions. I had no illusions at that point: we were not friends.

After that first hurdle, I did an assessment of Unit 51. My job was still primarily to fix that unit. I learned the staff composition was primarily foreign nurses: 15 countries were represented, 7 of which were African. As I was sharing the results during our weekly 1:1 meeting, Kitty told me to post signs on the unit that said: “Speak English Only.” This segues into the second time I stood up to Kitty.

I had to ask her to clarify because I couldn’t believe my ears. “Do you mean, you don’t want patients to speak other languages? Because we really can’t-”

“No.” She interrupted. “For the nurses. When those nurses speak other languages, they’re bullying others. It’s a deliberate attempt to exclude others.”

I was absolutely mortified. My other places of employment have always valued diversity. Not only would a sign like that be intolerant of our nursing staff, it would convey a message of exclusivity. What if a patient or family member felt embarrassed by the sign and did not ask for help? What kind of message would this send to the staff, and to the public? This was not the culture I intended to perpetuate. The nursing director proceeded to argue with me, and again tell me that perhaps I would be a better fit elsewhere. Luckily, a quick call to my HR partner confirmed that what the director proposed was against the Mission and Vision of the hospital system. Her idea was nixed.

I quickly promoted a very respected Kenyan nurse to supervisor. She was initially distrustful. I remember the first time we spoke alone together--her body was pointed away from me and she did not look me in the eye. Emily had been a nurse for twice as long as me, and was easily more intelligent. I told her this repeatedly. I encouraged her to go back to school. Emily enrolled in an MBA program and left me six months later after 16 years at bedside. She took a position with corporate. She was the first and still the only African nurse in administration.

The other staff were beginning to feel emboldened. At one point, 1/3 of my nurses were in graduate school. Unit 51 now had the highest percentage of certified nurses in the hospital. Nurses cried when they got their first “Excellent” employee evaluations, some after over 20 years in nursing. I wrote nomination letters: One won a spot in D Magazine’s Top 100 list of nurses in DFW and a spot on the evening news; another won a full scholarship to obtain her bachelor’s degree.

I wish I could say that I was able to transform Kitty. The third and final time I stood up to her was almost a year later. She used her “maybe you don’t belong here” line for the last time. I told her, “Maybe you’re right. I don’t. I quit.” Even though I was a single mother with no backup plan, no job was worth a boss who motivated by fear. Two years later, Kitty was fired for bullying. She was escorted off campus.

Emily bought a house next to me; we are now neighbors. The supervisor on 52 is now my son’s godmother. I brought nurses from both units with me to my next position. Believing in others when they have been written off does not go unnoticed. This is fundamental in a legal career because the skill, compassion, and intelligence of others is always there. Sometimes they just need to hear it from someone they respect before living up to their potential.

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