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.
Genoa Barrow | OBSERVER Senior Staff Writer
Nursing needs a few good men and Aron King has dedicated himself to improving care and the number of African Americans in the ranks.
King works for UC Davis and Kaiser as a nurse manager. Early in his career, King saw the reality of being a minority in the field. After being waitlisted for Sacramento schools, he attended Shasta College in Redding, where the Black population is 0.8%. On the first day of orientation a White woman assumed he was lost.
“I’m looking at the room numbers and she said, ‘Can I help you?’ I said, ‘Oh, I think I found where I’m supposed to be and then she stepped towards me (as if asking), ‘And you are?’ She obviously didn’t think I belonged there.”
King went four semesters before seeing another Black person, a fair-skinned professor he initially thought to be Puerto Rican.
“I guess maybe my radar was low because it had been a year and a half,” he joked.
It mattered to have someone who looked like him. Nearly a decade later, it still matters.
“I’ve had older people grab my hand and just say, ‘I’m just so glad to see somebody who looks like me.’ You’ve been in the ER for how many hours and I’m the first Black person you see.”
King is used to being “one of a few.”
“As you are moving up in a company, you just start seeing less and less people that look like you,” he said. “You start to kind of figure out how to navigate those spaces and how to make peace and let some stuff roll off, how to address some issues, but with other things you just kind of let it slide or whatever.”
King recalls working in Redding when George Zimmerman was on trial for killing Florida teenager Trayvon Martin. White nurses would talk about it at the nurses station, but go silent as he approached. He also remembers being questioned by an older White patient before she was even taken off a gurney.
“She said, ‘Is anybody in your family in nursing or the medical field?’ I wasn’t really sure where this question was coming from, or going. I said, ‘No’ and she goes, ‘Oh, so you must be an exception to the rule.’’
Today, King urges fellow nurses to rise above racism, microaggressions and other barriers to continuing.
The Golden Rule
Patients often spend more time with nurses than their doctor. They’re checking vitals, dispensing medications and providing comfort that physicians often can’t.
“I tell people this is the best job I’ve ever had,” King said.
He’s worked in a unit that helps patients prepare for and recover from surgery and also did a stint in cardiac telemetry, where people get pacemakers and heart stents. King has helped countless families deal with life and death realities in the ICU.
“When the plan of care changes to a comfort care measure, you really get to work with the family,” he shared. “I’ve learned to be attuned with the family and to have conversations and just be there.”
King previously worked in Woodland, where most patients were Hispanic, immigrant farmworkers for whom English is a second language. He could relate.
“These are people who are also equally scared of health care, and for good reasons,” he said.
Being able to connect with them made a difference.
“I want to go above and beyond for all those different groups of people, whether it’s a Black patient, or Hispanic patient, I want them to all feel that I’m here for you, I’m working for you. I’m working for your loved one. I may not relate to what you’re going through, but I could show compassion.”
The interaction has also helped King. Those on the brink of death offer warnings to take advantage of the time you have, to spend more time with your children, to speak to your parents more often, or to let grudges go.
“They are family members, sometimes estranged family members, that all of a sudden, here’s their family that’s going to pass away and you have these conversations with them. You do get to really bond and often doctors are calling and asking you questions, because you know a lot, you may know what their whole life is set up like. Are they going to be going home? Are they gonna need placement? These are things we just learn in conversation.”
While in high school, King was interested in science and had shadowed professionals at a hospital. He originally thought that “going into health care” meant becoming a doctor. Another hospital tour changed his mind, and his path. “There were nurses everywhere and I’m thinking, ‘Wow, you could just go anywhere, you don’t have to just stay in one specialty. This is kind of cool.’”
King knew the benefits of being a nurse – the ability to have a stable income to provide for himself and his family, and the potential for career growth – but began to see the bigger picture in graduate school. He came to realize the importance of having more diversity and what it means to serve the Black community.
“We started learning about implicit bias, racism and stuff that we all know exists in health care. I understood it from a historical standpoint, but you start looking at the data and you start looking at admission rates and pain control and maternal health, and you start looking at those numbers and you really see. That’s why I really started to get involved in the work of trying to increase diversity and reaching out to the community.”
King started a club while in nursing school that hosted community health events. Those events evolved into the Barbershop Project he now spearheads locally with the Capitol City Black Nurses Association (CCBNA). The outreach delivers health information to Black men “where they’re at,” and connects Black care providers to each other. Through the Barbershop Project, King and CCBNA President Carter Todd are linking with professionals across the country.
“Not only does that enable different perspectives from these different areas, but it also pulls in resources to our area,” King said. “When you’re looking for a Black urologist in Sacramento – and I’m not saying they don’t exist, but if we’re reaching out into another area, we can find those people. We can find a Black urologist, we can find a Black nephrologist; there’s cardiologists here that are Black too. But when you’re going into other communities, you can find those. There’s not an abundance of Black male nurses in Sacramento, but reaching all these different areas, we could kind of network together.”
Biases can impact health care and outcomes. A provider with preconceived notions about a person of color may minimize their concerns – and their care.
“When you add more diversity into that pool, you get providers, you get people like me, who will treat my patients better,” King said. “You get other cultures, whether they’re Hindi or White or whatever, that work alongside me as a Black nurse, as a Black nurse leader, and they’ll go, ‘Damn, I see Aron and his kids and when I’m treating this patient, that could be Aron’s mom, or Aron is a good person or whatever. I ‘see them’ when I treat them.’”
Exposure and interaction is key, King said. His best friend is Mexican and learning his family’s story helped him see what it would be like to walk in their shoes.
“My experience with a diverse group of friends is impacting how I treat other people. I’m not going to treat them like they’re not intelligent. I’m not going to treat them like they don’t deserve this care, that they’re here ‘illegally,’ is what people say, but undocumented. I don’t treat them that way,” King said.
Increasing diversity, he added, is not saying that only Black nurses can take care of Black patients, that only Black doctors can take care of Black patients.
“We are saying that other care providers will also do the same and the patients will also feel more comfortable sometimes working with these providers,” King shared.
Some people can go their whole lives without seeing a Black care provider. King wants to change that. He visits area high schools with the CCBNA, talking up the profession and showing young people what’s possible.
“We’re just regular people from regular places. We’re not some special people,” he shared humbly. “We just overcame certain barriers and made it.”