Celebrating Diversity in Nursing

May 02, 2023

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I spent the first half of my nursing career desperately trying to hide my disability, and now it’s my favorite thing to share with my patients!

Ryann Mason, BS, RN

April is Celebrate Diversity Month. To observe it, we interviewed four nurses to discuss the significance of recognizing diversity in their personal and professional lives. We spoke about everything from overcoming personal challenges as nurses with diverse backgrounds to the importance of representation when it comes to caring for their patients. Our conversation included understanding, authenticity and hope.

What role has diversity played in your life?

Ryann Mason, BS, RN (she/they): Honestly, diversity has played a very large role in my life. Growing up in a family of hippie creative types in the rural Appalachians, from the moment I was old enough to realize it, I have never really fit in. My tie-dye clothes and affinity for 1940s jazz music in grade school made that incredibly obvious. But you know what else? It also made me pretty dang unforgettable. When I became a wheelchair user, it wasn't much different. People have gawked at me like a creature in a zoo my whole life. Sometime in my 20s, I realized that standing out has some incredible benefits. Now I am generally dressed head-to-toe in bright rainbow colors that match my rainbow wheels and brightly colored hair - just try to forget me now.

Benjamin Lindsay, MS, RN, CCRN (they/them/theirs): I grew up in a very "un-diverse" place, and as diversity began to be introduced into my life, I felt more pieces of myself unlocking. As I began to see more visible representation of what diversity is and experience what diversity is, I realized that I was diverse. I'm trans and nonbinary in the LGBTQI+ community. And being someone with a minority gender identity, I feel very invested in protecting people of all minorities. Being part of a minority, and feeling marginalized at times, gives you this openness and deep empathy for other minorities and compassion for what they experience. No one should feel that way, because I have felt that way. So, diversity empowers me, and it's only empowered me along my journey.

Taranjeet Rathore, BSN, RN (he/him): In 2015, I was very excited because my dad said, "Hey, you guys are going to be moving to the United States." As a teenager, it was a pretty big thing for me. When I landed here and started high school, everyone looked at me, like, "Hmm. Huh." I'm a Sikh man, which is very respected in India, where people know the history of the Sikh religion, even though it is a minority there as well. It's only 2% of the population. But on a world scale, we're a very small group.

When I came here and got these looks, it took me my whole junior year to really understand what was going on: a lack of awareness. I would say about 10% of the people were generally curious, but 90% were ignorant because there is a difference between being curious about something and being ignorant about something.

When I started to fight for my own identity, it also began a journey of fighting for others, as Benjamin said. Once you are in that environment, once you feel something, once you experience it, that's when you realize. [Diversity] also empowers me, to be honest. I don't see it as oppression. I see it as strength. It has made me an advocate for myself, my patients and everyone around me. So, it empowers me.

Casey Green, BSN, RN, CCRN, CTRN, CFRN, CEN, TCRN, CPEN (she/her): I've learned a lot about other cultures, races and religions, and I've also learned languages. These lessons have helped in my nursing career, because I feel like I'm more open minded and willing to learn about people who are different from myself and my family.

How do you feel your unique experience has been in the nursing field and what impact has it had on you as a nurse?

Benjamin: There's been a spectrum of experiences. I've had patients rip out their central line saying that they're trying to get away from me because I'm gay and they're afraid that they're going to catch it. But then I've also had a patient who sees my pronouns visible on my badge and asks me questions and is curious, as Taranjeet said, curious rather than ignorant. I tried to educate myself and keep in mind that there are social determinants of health, and they may not have been able to have the education that discusses who I am and people in my minority. I came from a small town where there was no one like me, and it still hurts, I guess. Some days, the negative interactions empower me, and some days they hinder me from continuing to be visible and loud and to take up space.

Taranjeet: For me, everything is a part of me. I try to be curious and find why things are done this way and not that way. And that could also be about my religion. Why do I follow this religion? Why do I wear a turban? Why do I have a beard? There's a reason behind everything. I do not like to follow anything blindly. If I like the reason, that's when I grow. And that's the same thing, right, with diversity?

Anytime, as Benjamin mentioned, I have these negative impacts or any negative interactions, as a human being, it is very natural to feel hurt. I've had those days where I'm like, "Hmm. Why is my religion this way? What did they think about making us grow a beard or wear a turban?" But at the end of the day, realizing our roots and what it really stands for and looking at the bigger picture has impacted people's lives in a positive way.

For example, one time [in my unit] I saw an elderly Sikh man who couldn't speak English. I walked into the room to say hi, because I almost saw my grandpa in that guy. But he was in visual distress. He told me, "These guys cut my chest hair without asking me." Well, in that instance, putting those EKG or ECG pads on his chest was crucial. But cutting hair for a man whose article of faith is body hair, any kind of body hair ... I mean, what is the psychological impact we're leaving on them? People don't know. That's the thing. There's a lack of awareness.

It empowered me to make sure I stand up for these people, because I can speak English. I can defend myself. But if it was my dad on that table, he wouldn't be able to speak English. He wouldn't be able to defend himself. The impact that it could leave on his psychological health would be far greater than his physical health.

So, again, as I practice in my nursing, treating my patients as my family members. For example, with COVID, no one has really been able to see families, and as the restrictions are being lifted, it's nice to see families back. But we are the families for these patients. It all comes around to treating people how we would like to be treated.

Ryann: Being a disabled woman in healthcare, I feel like I bring a plethora of experiences to the table. For one, I started working in healthcare when I was 16 years old, two months before I was diagnosed with my disability, Ehlers-Danlos syndrome. I was told I'd be in a wheelchair by the time I was 20. I started my career in healthcare as a volunteer EMT just before I was diagnosed. My career in healthcare has evolved right alongside my understanding of what it feels like to be a patient. I think that's one of the most important things I bring to my nursing practice: I know exactly how it feels to be lying in that hospital bed, surrounded by strangers in white coats speaking a language that you can't understand, stuck inside a body that doesn't feel like your own. My patients take one look at my wheelchair and they can recognize that as well. It's funny, I spent the first half of my nursing career desperately trying to hide my disability, and now it's my favorite thing to share with my patients!

How important do you think representation is to your patients and why?

Casey: Representation is critical to patients. I think that over the years as a nurse, I have seen Black and brown patients physically relax when they see me enter the room to care for them or their family - especially for Black patients in pain. I wear a "Y'all means all" pin and a diversity rainbow pin on my badge, and I have had LGBTQ+ patients comment that they feel comfortable knowing that leadership is committed to diversity. I think patients, if not represented, at least want to feel welcome and included.

Ryann: I believe representation is absolutely vital to our patients. If they can't see themselves in their caretakers, it makes it so much harder to trust our advice. Our humanity is what allows our patients to put their trust in us in the midst of some of the scariest parts of their lives.

If you could give a future nurse some advice on how to succeed as a nurse with a diverse background, what would it be?

Benjamin: I think the simplest way to put it is to continue to live in your authenticity and take up space. There are a lot of people you've never met that are watching you and cheering you on, and someday they may open up or they may not. But they are cheering you on and supporting what you stand for.

Taranjeet: I truly agree. I'd like to add that If you are different, if you stand out in a crowd, know that and own that and believe in it. As we all say, we are the eyes for the patients. One-on-one nursing means advocacy, advocacy, advocacy. But what does that advocacy mean if you can't even stand up for yourself? Advocacy starts with yourself. I believe my values make me the nurse I am today.

Casey: Be authentically you and don't allow microaggressions to permeate. Call them out in real time. Understand that while critical care units are not always diverse, there is a whole community of allies at AACN, so please don't give up. You represent patients who don't have much representation already. Critical care is your place.

Ryann: Be proud of your diversity. As nurses, we care for people from all backgrounds and walks of life. The more diverse our nursing staff, the more equipped we are to provide care to all humans.

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