May 6-12, 2022 is National Nurses Week. In honor of this, The Sacramento OBSERVER has published a special commemorative edition titled “A Culture Of Care,” recognizing the work of just a few of these health heroes.
By Genoa Barrow | OBSERVER Senior Staff Writer
Nursing wasn’t what Brandie Cherry wanted to do coming out of high school. It wasn’t in the five-year plan for her life. It was in her DNA, though.
Today, Cherry serves as director of emergency services at Kaiser Permanente Sacramento.
“I am the face, essentially, of the emergency department,” she shared.
She and the chief of emergency services, Dr. Vinh Le, oversee and manage daily operations including patient care, hiring, and the financial and business aspects of the department. Cherry has worked at the Morse Avenue facility for 11 years, the last three as director. Prior to that, she was a manager.
While nursing wasn’t her first career choice, her mother and grandmother were both nurses. That family history made it seem less of a leap of faith and more like a natural transition. Her grandmother was the director of a long-term care facility.
“From an early age, I remember sitting under my grandmother’s desk as she was the leader of this long term care facility. I recall the smells, the conversations around patient care and the interactions with other nurses on duty and their uniforms. All of that was part of my childhood,” she shared.
Cherry’s mother worked at Harborview Medical Center, one of the largest trauma centers in Washington state.
“While I didn’t have as much interaction with her work environment, it still was very normal for me to come home and see my mom in her white uniform with white stockings and white shoes, her nursing cap and all of the discussion around patient care,” she shared.
Cherry wanted to work with animals and studied zoology in college. She wanted to go into science, but didn’t “know exactly what that pathway looked like.” It didn’t necessarily look like her at the time. A focus on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) education for students of color wasn’t quite yet a thing.
“Interestingly enough, when we talk about race and equity and disparities and different things like that, minorities in science and math, we didn’t see a lot of Black folks in those sorts of programs,” she said. “It was a challenge going into college with that sort of desire to really be educated in math and science.”
Cherry met her future husband in college. When he entered the military and was stationed at Beale Air Force Base, her life took a different path.
“Knowing that the military kind of moves people from here and there, I decided that I was going to move into nursing as a career, just because I was very interested in being able to be an independent Black woman and be able to support myself,” she said.
From early on, Cherry noticed a lack of diversity in the field.
“There were not a lot of – I would say people of color or minorities in health care and I’ve been in nursing for 22 years,” she said.
She recalled being the only Black person in her nursing school cohort. “Over the years, there was always this idea that you may be the only Black person in a class, any sort of medical field or even in the work environment,” Cherry said.
She doesn’t see many other Black women at her level of leadership. “I could probably count them all on one hand. For an organization the size of Kaiser, and Kaiser is pretty big, that’s pretty profound in the sense that it’s not common,” she said. “But it’s certainly happening. I’m certainly seeing women of color, and men of color, in leadership positions more often now than I have in the past. I would even suggest that in the last five to 10 years, I’ve seen some improvement and I’m happy to see the exploration of hiring and getting a more diverse workforce in place. I feel like I’ve seen some efforts in the right direction.”
She has contributed to that.
“I wouldn’t change what I’m doing for anything, because I think you’re put in a position to be able to make a difference. Thinking about just being a minority in a leadership position, I think it inspires me to inspire other people to continue to walk in this path.”
Responding In A Crisis
Emergency rooms have played a critical role during the pandemic. Cherry has been on the frontline of defense.
“People were scared and fearful, not knowing what to expect with the pandemic,” she shared.
In 2020, her department went from seeing 300 patients a day to seeing only 100.
“As we’ve learned more, we’ve changed our operations as we needed to be able to support how the pandemic evolved over the last two years,” she said.
“I work with an amazing team and we pulled together, and the best thing that we can do as a health care team is really plan and prepare for the worst and be prepared for whatever is coming our way,” Cherry continued.
The emergency department has become the health care safety net for those who “may not have great connections within the health care community.” Cherry can’t say that the ER sees more African Americans, but she understands that for many who lack access to care, the ER is their primary care provider.
“When it comes to somebody feeling that they have a medical situation happening that they don’t understand and they don’t know where to get services, the emergency department will always be available, with the door open, to provide that care and treatment,” she said.
COVID-19 exposed the disparities of health care availability among minority groups across the nation.
“The pandemic highlighted where, in fact, those disparities were happening and ultimately it required people to take a deeper look into why there’s such a disparaging sort of discrepancy between health care in one population of people versus another.”
There are opportunities to close the gap, she says, including adding more African Americans to the health care workforce. She points to Kaiser’s KP Launch program that
supports diversity in hiring and training. KP Launch also has outreach to high school students.
“It just exposes our youth in a way that gives them an opportunity to see something outside of their normal environment and allows for them to see that there is potential, that they can get into areas such as nursing, and even medicine for that matter as a provider, and seeing people working, seeing minorities even in high roles, within the organization,” Cherry said.
Get Your Mind Right
ER staff were hit hard by COVID-19.
“Working long hours, working within environments in which we’ve had to change workflows from day to day to be able to support the nuances of the pandemic as they arose over the last two years,” Cherry shared.
“Just your typical run of the mill emergency department day can be very challenging, but adding on the layers of the pandemic certainly knocked us off of our feet. What made it hard is just your ‘normal’ changed completely how we were. Our uniforms, our protective equipment, the way we managed isolation patients – all of those things really took a toll on the health care teams.”
Things are getting better, she says.
“I think we’re kind of turning the corner. I’m not saying we’re outside of the pandemic, by any means, but we’re certainly turning the corner in knowing how to be more prepared and better prepared and educating people on how to protect themselves.”
Staffers are also getting better at taking care of themselves.
“They’ve just been exhausted and the layering of changes through the pandemic has really taken a toll on them, but I think the resilience is coming back,” Cherry said. “I’m seeing inspired nursing again within our workforce. I’m happy to say that I believe we’re turning the corner.”
Kaiser offered a series of classes on recovery and resiliency that stressed the importance of exercise, diet, hydration, and sleep. Cherry also credits Kaiser’s Live Well Be Well program for providing mental health resources for those who were feeling drained and overwhelmed at work.
“It just gave you opportunities to explore how to manage through difficult situations and what tools you need to connect with in order to bounce back when you’re not feeling emotionally well or you’re feeling exhausted to the point where you just don’t want to go to work anymore,” Cherry said.
She has led sessions and encouraged putting the lessons into practice.
“My goal wasn’t for people to say ‘Oh, Brandie is the best leader because she recognized we need some resilience training,’” she said. “No, it’s because my workforce is suffering behind how they had to manage through the pandemic and we need to be able to support them in a way that gives them tools to bounce back and be healthy contributors to society.”
Her work is stressful, but she accepts it and thrives on it, having learned how to manage “the roller-coaster.”
“It’s part of my personality to be at a higher level, managing at a higher level of stress,” she said. “That makes me feel good, I feel good there. Not everybody handles stress in the same way, but the activities that I do – exercising, having a team around me, relying on my family to handle home things – allow me to be able to be present at work and manage through any sort of difficult day.”
Her management style has caught the attention of others. Kaiser named her one of its emerging leaders of the year. The honor went to health care professionals from across the state. She remains humble.
“That’s an amazing recognition and I’m honored to receive it, but I think my goal really is to make sure that we can provide the best patient care that we can to those that need our services.”
Cherry wouldn’t change the path of her career, the one she didn’t originally envision having.
“I actually love being at the bedside with patients and being able to provide them a helping hand and holding them through difficult times, being able to share with them my commitment to their health and being able to say to them, ‘While you’re here, you’re going to be just fine, we’re going to take you out of this crisis situation that you have, and you’re going to be on the other side of it and you’re going to be just fine.’”