I first saw them through thick, tall barbwire fences: some were walking, some were working and some simply sunbathing, but they were all under the same gray sky and wearing the same gray suits. Other people in colorful clothes were smiling and cracking jokes with each other as it was the end of a long day at work. Some of those who carried shiny gold badges and loud voices escorted us to a small, windowless room. It was my first day volunteering at the prison and for the following 4 hours I sat through lessons and stories of how the women in gray were invariably going to try to deceive, rob or rape me. At one point, the Chaplain stood up to finish explaining why we had to be extremely cautious: “they are criminals,” he scoffed. I then asked myself “What could be so important for me that I would risk being in such a dangerous place, surrounded by such dangerous people as the ones they portrayed?”
I wanted to dedicate my time as birth doula at the Washington Corrections Center for Women, because as a Latina immigrant and mother, I am very uncomfortable with the fact that the majority of those who have access to pregnancy and birth support are the ones who can afford it, which in our country it translates to white people with privilege. My work at the prison allows me to be involved with women’s health throughout the lifespan and I’m in a unique setting where in one day I can discuss birth control options with one client and menopause coping strategies with another. I enjoy having a balance of the relative calmness of the prison’s clinic work, our lively parenting classes and the heart-pounding environment of the hospital births.
But my story as a health activist didn’t start at the prison. Before I immigrated to the United States 11 years ago, I was involved in health care projects in the slums of my hometown in Brazil, where I reached out to a few young students. I was horrified when I learned about girls who believed their only option was to end their pregnancies with a crochet needle – a problem so big in Brazil that it crosses the barriers from women’s health over to public health. While I could not provide more than emotional support to those girls, I was a constant, reliable presence; someone who they could trust and most importantly, someone who would treat them with respect. I was the person who would provide them with resources when they had to deal with abuse from their parents and other adults around them. Throughout the time I worked in the slums, I could see with my own eyes how our society had failed them, and how at a very early age they had already resigned themselves to the same fate of every poor black woman in Brazil: hopeless.
Those experiences shocked me out of my own complacency back then, and when they were combined with the feelings of my own vulnerability when I immigrated, I understood that I had to do something to improve health care. Having had three pregnancies with complications and not being able to voice my concerns or advocate for myself appropriately because of my past language barrier and cultural differences, led me to look around and realize that I was one of the lucky few. When I look at the average new immigrant, I know that they will have a greater likelihood and more intense feeling of abandonment and fear throughout their lives than what I have experienced. I will know I did my job as a nurse when I can provide a space where people can feel safe, be it when going for a routine exam or a major surgery.
It took me some time to understand how nursing could integrate many attributes of my personality: my love for biological sciences, personal interactions, service, teaching and my holistic views. Today I know that gaining the knowledge in nursing would allow me to increase the scope of advocacy for all the people that I have ever met and will meet, despite any adversities that they may have encountered in their lives. Moreover, it will allow me to fight for better access to health care and bridge the gap between the ones who can and the ones who cannot afford medical treatment.
The nursing model appeals to me because it covers off lapses in care that I believe exist with physicians in the United States. I grew up with a system in Brazil that while far from perfect has many qualities which here only nurses practice; a more compassionate collaborative interaction with the patient encompassing a focused yet gentle approach to education and empowering as a way of preventing diseases or more complicated procedures. To me, the essence of being a nurse is to have a partnership and to inspire people to reach the point where they can find their own voice and thrive – things that I missed incredibly with my own experiences.
What I have learned so far by working in communities with a greater need for specialized nursing care, and by working with people who are being hurt by the systems that are in place right now, is that we can identify the shortcomings of those systems and correct them little by little. As my responsibilities increase in the role of a nurse, I want to break the institutional and cultural barriers that prevent people from having the best health care available. I want to expand my role as a health activist by carrying over the knowledge that everyone should receive safe, legal and affordable care and I want to create strong alliances with my patients throughout their lives, help enhance their experiences in health care and expand their choices.
Having graduated from one of the hardest programs at the University of Washington while simultaneously working in a research laboratory and raising a family, I knew I had the tools and support system needed to succeed in the nursing program. While studying microbiology was fulfilling it was doing research in the Pathology Department that I was able to truly shine.
I had my research training during my junior year in the laboratory of Dr. Matt Kaeberlein, whose research interests include developing therapies for age-associated diseases. I was able to put into practice what I had studied while working in conjunction with researchers and faculty from other areas, which enlightened my own educational path. My experiences in independent academic research were crucial to developing autonomous critical thought processes, analytical skills and the work ethic necessary for my future endeavors.
As much as I know that research was a vital part of my learning process, in school and in life, there was something in me that could not rest. I wanted to be closer to people and be a problem solver more than I want to be a scientist working in the background. For me, defining a problem is not enough, I want to be able to also act on it in a more direct and personal level. Today, my main satisfaction comes from the understanding that the knowledge and experiences I have been accumulating as a student nurse, microbiologist, a prison doula, an immigrant and a mother will deeply contribute to the quality of my work as a nurse.
For those reasons, I am seeking a position to serve diverse populations with whom I can share and embrace different views and continue to take part in the ongoing studies and dialogues that are fundamental to the role of a nurse. I strongly believe in offering the best health care possible to our communities and not just satisfying my personal goals. Following my graduation at nursing school, I plan not only to serve as a tool to reduce inequities that affect dignity, but also as an educator: leading new nurses to a better understanding of the needs of our communities.
People, the fibers that sustain our communities from the Rio de Janeiro slums to the Washington prisons, all go through many of the same issues regardless of where we live. Our countries are still failing, segregating, oppressing and ignoring entire segments of society and it is up to us to change this scenario and embrace all communities.