Catherine Wamalwa, RN from Allentown, Pennsylvania, shares her story about race in the healthcare industry. An immigrant from Kenya, she worked as a CNA for 10 years before becoming an RN. In that time, she learned a lot about family-caregiver relationships.
“I am a person of color. Sometimes when I walk into the patient’s room and tell the family that I will be their loved one’s caregiver, I can see their hearts sink because they want their loved ones to die in the arms of someone who looks like them – someone they trust. So I make sure I prove to them that they can trust me by conducting myself respectfully. When I treat families with respect, showing them I am compassionate and competent, they know their loved one is in good hands with me. Listening is the most important part of establishing trust and building relationships with patients and families.”
Catherine started her journey as a nursing professional when she moved to the US in 2002. When she arrived, she only had an associate’s degree in business administration and no experience in healthcare. So, after feeling dissatisfied with her line of work, her friend suggested that she become a nurse. “I kept telling her ‘I’m not a nurse,’ but she kept telling me I should first try being an aide.” The first shifts were challenging. But after about three months, Catherine started to love giving care. “In the nursing homes, I saw the suffering of another human. I felt compelled to do as much as I can to ease their stuffing. I’d give and give and give, but I felt that I still couldn’t give enough.”
Because she grew up in a place where healthcare was only for those who could pay, Catherine didn’t always think fondly of nurses. But when she came to the US and began her journey as a caregiver, she rediscovered a love for nursing. “Where I came from, many of us were poor. And if you’re poor in some parts of the world, you don’t get proper medical attention. When I was younger, I thought, ‘why would I want to be a nurse if they treat my grandmother like this?’ But when I came here and started as a nurse aide, I realized that I have to be the good nurse. It’s up to me to be the nurse I wish my grandmother had. Whether you make someone comfortable or save their life, they are always appreciative when you care for them well.”
After two years as a nurse aide, Catherine started to ask how she could become a registered nurse. “I am an ambitious person. So I asked my friend, ‘how do I become a nurse?’ The first thing she said was, ‘Go back to school. If you can get a degree in business administration, you can get a nursing degree!’ So that’s exactly what I did.”
Catherine moved around Pennsylvania, Illinois, and Maryland with her husband while completing her education and practicing as a CNA and LPN. “But my goal was still to become an RN. I wasn’t going to stop there.” She finished her Bachelor of Science in Nursing with a focus in mental health as well as her associates degree in nursing and became an RN.
In Maryland, she worked for a community mental health service. “I dealt with the homeless and the drug afflicted population. Most of these people suffer from depression or other mental health problems. My job was to check up on them once or twice a month and give them their medication to keep them mentally healthy. It felt good to be a voice of encouragement and positivity in their lives.”
“I’m used to traveling around because of the time I spent traveling with my husband to his jobs. I like IntelyCare because I can move to new facilities where I meet new people – I enjoy diversity.” Caring for others is what drives her to be a nurse.
“There is a difference between the suffering you encounter as a nurse and what you do with it. I realized that if you want to give the best care, the most important thing is to listen. Once you start listening to your patients, they will listen to you, too. When you’re faking, everyone will know. But if you truly listen with your heart, they will know you are genuine and competent.”
Sometimes patients and their families ask her tough questions. “I always say that, although death is out of my hands, as a nurse, I look at two things: The lungs, and the kidneys.” When Catherine demonstrates she is compassionate and competent, she gains the trust of her patients and their families, even when situations are dire…
“One time I had a patient with severe lung issues. By the time I got to her she wasn’t breathing. I administered the oxygen machine and told the aide to get the supervisor to the room with another oxygen tank. But she was gone for three minutes when the supervisor came. I started praying for her. It was a miracle that she started to come back. The heart beat monitor started to show 43, 44, 45 beats per minute. By the time five minutes had passed, her heart rate was up to 80 beats per minute. I said, ‘open your eyes,’ and she opened them. She was back with us.”
“After a moment like that, there is not much else to do other than to take a deep breath and enjoy your lunch break. Nursing homes are slower but sometimes you get situations like that.”
“You just have to do it,” she says. Sometimes there is no training in the world that can prepare you for the situations you may face as a caregiver. “But you just have to fight. Even when the situation is in the hands of the emergency paramedics, you have to fight to keep your patients stable until they arrive.” When she practiced community and mental health nursing in Baltimore, she encountered plenty of those situations. “I’m not an acute nurse. But it’s still nursing.”
After an exhausting shift, Catherine decompresses by tending to her garden. “I’m always trying to find unique vegetables from Africa to grow and use when I cook at home. For example, in the US we eat pumpkins. But in Africa, we eat the pumpkin’s leaves too. When I make the Kenyan dish, Ungale, I use those pumpkin leaves with sauce made from other vegetables in my garden.” A home-grown Kenyan meal is just what she needs after a long day.
Catherine’s children are grown and out of the house, but she and her husband keep each other company. “Sometimes I’ll get a call from my grandchildren telling me how school is going and that never fails to brighten my day.” Catherine likes to take it easy when she’s home, saying, “I don’t swim anymore or go out for long walks. But I enjoy gardening and I go to church every Sunday.”
To the younger nurses out there, she says that “nursing is a call. If your heart’s not in it and it’s just a job, then nursing is not right for you. I remember writing a paper for my BSN on Florence Nightingale and feeling so fulfilled and inspired to follow in her footsteps. Even as a CNA, whatever you do, do it from your heart. Your patients will know if the care you give comes from your heart or not.”
Catherine’s ambitious spirit and compassionate heart make her a caregiver we’re grateful to have in the IntelyCare family. With IntelyCare, she can build a schedule that fits her life while offering the ability to travel to new places and solve new problems that keep her nursing experience fresh.
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