Four nurses make activism a part of their nursing practice.
When Judy Frederick, RN saw that immunization rates in areas of the Austin, Texas, school district were low, she worked with school administrators, health care providers, and state and local officials to remedy the situation.
Activism has been a part of Sally Mata’s life for almost as long as the San Jose, Calif., RN can remember. In 1954, labor leader Cesar Chavez — who would later bring international attention to the plight of migrant farm workers — helped her father, a Mexican immigrant, return to Mexico to get documents allowing him to become a U.S. citizen and hold skilled, higher-paying government contract jobs. When her father asked how he could return the favor, Chavez told him to “pass on the generosity to other people, and when you see anyone who needs help, help them,” says Mata, president of the Greater San Jose Chapter of the National Association of Hispanic Nurses (NAHN) and senior staff nurse and consultant at the Gardner Family Health Network, which serves low-income families and undocumented immigrants in San Jose. “That’s how we keep it strong.”
Nurses have been activists since medieval times, when members of religious and secular nursing orders looked after lepers, orphaned children, and poor men and women whose families couldn’t or wouldn’t care for them. Nurse activists of previous centuries, including Florence Nightingale, Dorothea Dix, and Margaret Sanger, pushed for and achieved tremendous health care improvements in their lifetimes.
In these days of heavy workloads, increasingly sicker patients and the demands of balancing work and family lives, many nurses find it hard to get through a work week, much less push for change or look for ways to give back to their communities.
But some seem to hear a call so strong that they cannot resist. These nurse activists don’t consider themselves special or heroic. They see their work — educating people about child abuse, providing a safe environment for patients who have been sexually assaulted, working to increase childhood immunizations in their community — as something they must do for those in need.
Chavez’s philosophy has stayed with Mata throughout her nursing career. She helped set up diabetes education programs for low-income families and undocumented migrant workers; she still teaches diabetes education classes as a volunteer. Mata has flown to Mexico with an international medical organization to work in village clinics. She has joined neighborhood residents protesting a hospital closure in a low-income neighborhood. As part of her work with NAHN, she has helped create scholarship programs and educational support for Latino nurses.
Few such programs existed when she was struggling to get through nursing school in the 1970s as a young, recently divorced woman, she says. “In those days, there wasn’t any help for girls anywhere,” she says. When she joined NAHN — then called the Association of Chicana-Latina Nurses — she met the women who would shape her life as an activist.
“I thought, ‘Why couldn’t I have found something like this when I was going to school?’” she says. Now Mata proudly lists her group’s success stories, such as the single mother in her 40s from a poor rural Mexican family attending nursing school with NAHN support. “I want people to know there’s help out there,” she says. “They shouldn’t give up.”
Change takes persistence
Twenty-eight years ago, Anita Ruiz-Contreras, RN, MSN, CEN, MICN, SANE-A, rode in an ambulance with a young girl who had been raped, beaten, and shot. It was her first experience with sexual assault, and she never forgot it.
“She was somebody I could have known,” says Ruiz-Contreras, who was 20 at the time. Ruiz-Contreras is now ED staff developer for the Santa Clara Valley Health and Hospital System.
As an ED nurse at Santa Clara Valley, she frequently saw at least one patient a night (and often more) who had been sexually assaulted. Though her heart went out to them, Ruiz-Contreras felt she never had much time to talk during examinations or forensic evidence collection. She had other patients, with serious burns or severe trauma, who also needed her attention.
Patients who had been sexually assaulted had to wait alone or with the police for physicians to examine them, often getting passed from staff member to staff member and forced to answer the same painful questions over and over, she says. “They used to say that the hospital examination could be almost like a re-rape situation.”
In 1983, she read an article about nurse-led sexual assault response teams (SART) in Texas. Nurses performed examinations, collected evidence and offered information on sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy prevention to patients. Patients were treated with dignity and respect. She wrote a proposal to create a similar program at her hospital. Four years later, after changes in state law mandated coordinated care for sexual assault survivors, hospital administrators gave approval for creation of a SART program, which became a model for others in the area.Now, on-call nurses work in teams with advocates from a local rape crisis center. Patients who have been sexually assaulted are never left alone. Though the nurses can’t change what has happened to patients, Ruiz-Contreras says, they can now help keep the patients from feeling even worse.