In recognition of Black History Month, here are the stories of black men who work in nursing at Novant Health. They describe their commitment to nursing and their patients as well as the challenges they face from racial and gender stereotypes. The interviews were edited for clarity and brevity.
Timothy Watson, 57, certified nursing assistant
Taking care of others comes naturally for Watson, a certified nursing assistant who was born and raised in Winston-Salem. When he was in high school, Watson took care of his grandmother. That service, he said, made him “well-prepared” for his job today, a job involves feeding, washing and watching over his patients at various hospitals in the Triad area. Before becoming a CNA, Watson worked as a restaurant server for 25 years. After many lengthy conversations with his sisters about a possible change, he decided to take a leap of faith and changed careers. He hasn’t looked back since. It’s been almost five years.
Q: Tell us about a moment with a patient that stands out.
I work in palliative care a lot and I had a lady, she was 92 years old. Sometimes I’d sit with her – she didn't want to be alone. She said, “I'm going to die, I know I'm going to die, but I want to say thank you for spending time with me.” She didn't have any family, so she would be coming in here and holding my hand. We sometimes played gospel music. And it would feel spiritual. She said, “I wanted you to know this before I passed on ... I want to thank you, and you keep that positive attitude because you will be blessed for it.”
That makes you get all of the negative out that you go through sometimes. That makes you feel like what you're doing is just as important as any other job out there (and that) you're making a great impact on their lives.
Q: Has being black and male shaped your experience of working as a certified nursing assistant?
Oh yes. I have had instances where people would treat you differently. I have been cursed, hit. Also, people have told me, “Oh well, being a black man, you gotta watch what you're saying. Because some people are trying to get you…”
And people actually say things like, “What are you doing that women's job for?” And I said I'm just doing what I'd like done for me if I was sick and in the hospital and wanted dignity and peace. I'm not sure if other males go through stuff like that. It’s a job and it’s a worthwhile and important job taking care of sick and aging people. You go through things like that and that’s all I have to really say about it. I always take pride in the fact this is an important job.
Q: What do you love most about being a nurse?
I get great comfort out of helping people, especially when they are about to leave the earth. Be there and talk to them and even hold their hand and sing to them sometimes. It’s a great feeling and it could get sad but it’s a great feeling for when they say, “Thank you for all of the time you were there for me.” That’s sad but it's also a great, beautiful thing for me.”
Carl Scott-Jones, 38, registered nurse
An Oakland, California native, Scott-Jones moved to Charlotte, North Carolina about 16 years ago. As the son of a pediatric cardiology nurse and a surgeon, Scott-Jones was exposed to healthcare from an early age. When he was 18, he took a job at FedEx in Atlanta, where he drove 18-wheel trucks and loaded planes while going to school part-time. After getting his bachelor’s degree in political science, Scott-Jones went to nursing school and has worked as a nurse for five years now. Today he works in the cardiac intensive care unit at Novant Health Presbyterian Medical Center.
Q: How did you get into nursing?
One day I talked to my mom and she suggested, “Why not go into nursing?” And at that point, I was like "Nah – it's for women.” It was a sexist view, I guess. (Over time, Scott-Jones had a change of heart and went to nursing school.) I decided that I wanted to do something from an intensive care standpoint or an emergency standpoint. I'm really an adrenaline junkie, so I like to be put into situations where I have to think on my feet and I like the challenge of it.
Q: How has your view of nursing changed after years in the profession?
I learned that nursing is one of those things that is five inches deep and a mile wide. What I mean by that is that it's complex sometimes and it's simple sometimes. There’s the aspect of making sure that your patient is okay from an emotional and spiritual standpoint. Sometimes people come in with these life-altering issues and their faith is in question, their outlook is in question. They don't expect to get hit with sudden illnesses. There is the physical aspect of making sure that patients feel safe and they don't fall. There's also labor and delivery where you're taking care of mom and the kid. And some of those areas can be stressful at times, but there's probably more happy-go-lucky feelings, too. It can be complex or it can be very simple.
Q: As a black male nurse you tend to stand out. What’s that like?
Oh I've definitely been called the N-word before by patients as a nurse. The first time this happened, I wasn’t surprised because the patient was intoxicated, and I decided to stay away from that patient’s room. The second time it happened, I was slightly offended. In the end, after speaking with the charge nurse about what happened I was able to get my assignment to this patient changed.
I feel like for the most part, growing up in the Bay Area and having so much exposure to different cultures has helped me as a nurse when it comes to communicating with patients who are not white. I have a very limited Spanish vocabulary but it has helped me with some of our Spanish-speaking patients . We have a considerable Vietnamese and Hmong population. So understanding some aspects of family dynamics that I was able to witness as a kid growing up (has allowed me to help) people with their feeling comforted and being accepted and transitioned into a hospital. From that perspective, I think it helps (to be) a black male nurse from California with a diverse background (in) understanding how to interact with different cultures.
Q: Why do you think so few black men go into nursing?
Because of perceptions both societal and gender-related. A lot of guys are seen as having communication barriers, and nursing is one of those areas where you have to communicate … I've learned that some of my female coworkers can be very direct and upfront like males are. It takes a while to get comfortable communicating with a lot of women in different ways. I think that's another barrier that guys perceive.
Q: What advice would you give someone who's interested in becoming a nurse?
Have an open mind. Know what you're getting into. Nursing is very complex and it can be anything from wiping a lot of poop, to dealing with a lot of complex emotions, to helping patients and their families. You don't really learn what you're getting into unless you have been on the unit with a lot of experience. There's also the basics of nursing that a lot of people write off – things like baths, turning patients for skincare, talking to your patients, interacting with them and their family members so that they can build a trusting relationship. Those are just the basic things where now those tasks are traditionally handed off to nurse techs and nurse assistants and we forget those very fundamental aspects of what nursing started off as. What I take pride in for taking care of a patient is sometimes having the opportunity to shave them, those things that make guys feel good about themselves. It's a small thing that often gets overlooked but is really rewarding.
Richard Coffy, 37, registered nurse and clinical unit leader for the gastrointestinal unit
Coffy was born and raised in Kenya and when he was 20, he moved to the U.S. in 2001 in hopes of starting his career in healthcare. When he was young, his grandfather passed away from heart failure and it was the lack of resources and access to care that moved him to take action. He earned a scholarship to attend Wichita State University in Kansas, but realized he couldn’t afford to take on the student loan debt. But he didn’t let this get in the way. Instead he decided to go to nursing school, a much more affordable alternative to medical school, to embark on a career path that he hasn’t moved away from for the past 13 years.
Q: Was the view of male nurses different in your homeland?
Back home in Kenya, nursing had become so popular. It was becoming mainstream for both men and women because traditionally it was offered in tertiary colleges or some technical schools but then it was coming into universities. So it was becoming front and center and it was no longer viewed from a gender perspective.
Q: So, you’re a black, male nurse from another country, which really puts you in the minority in the U.S. How have you handled the experience?
I remember one time, there was an issue but it was a positive and I took from that and ran with it. We had an issue and a patient had a complaint. And they didn't know exactly who took care of them that night. But they said, “The African guy was very nice.” Now remember they can't remember who took care of them, but they remember me, it must have been my accent and I was the only black person. So from that day on, I realized it's not a weakness.
It may be a weakness in society but I am going to embrace it and make it a strength. So when I go to the patient's room and they ask all of these interesting questions like, “In Africa, do you have these buildings?” So I take that chance to actually talk to them let them learn something about me and learn something about them. At the end of the conversation, they are not focused on where I'm from or what I did for them, but they are more focused on like oh, that was a nice experience. For a moment their mind goes away from their disease and they have a fresh look on their face. You have to take advantage of those situations and create this relationship with your patients.
Coming to Charlotte also as a male, there is always this belief that men will get more opportunities than women. Maybe that is true for the Caucasians. Not for us Africans. I feel like you have to work extra hard, you actually have to prove yourself.
What do you think would motivate more a lot of black men to join the profession?
The only thing I can think of that is not being done currently is black male nurses being out there more. Most of the TV shows we have the nurses are always the females and the doctors are male. (It) brings to mind only one movie that I know of – “Meet the Fockers,”– where Gaylord is a male RN and it is pretty much negative. So if they can put it out there, the media, and the nursing organizations to promote more male nurses, that will spark more interest.