It was a warm day in July when we sat down to do a Zoom interview with school nurse, Ebony Brown, who graciously agreed to be interviewed by WCN even though she was one week away from giving birth to twins. Our conversation with this passionate emerging nurse leader was both candid and inspiring.
Ebony Brown studied for her RN at Shoreline Community College from 2014-2016. She went on to enroll in UW Bothell’s RN to BSN program graduating in 2018. Ebony is currently employed as a school nurse at Dimmitt Middle School in Renton, WA.
WCN: What inspired you to pursue a career in nursing?
Ebony Brown: My interest in health care started in middle school when a girl’s group organization came to my school and started a mentorship program. Since the group was specifically for girls, we felt safe asking all those awkward questions you don’t want to, or couldn’t, ask your parents. One day, the woman running the program brought in a doll and showed us how our bodies work. I appreciated this experience because, although it might be cliché, knowledge really is power. When you understand your body and know what can happen, it puts you in a better place. After this experience, I knew I wanted to do something in women’s health. No one in my family worked in health care, but I thought, okay, I’m going to be an OBGYN doctor, and that was the plan.
After high school, I enrolled in a women’s liberal arts college in Georgia, pre-med track. While there, I got homesick and decided to return to Seattle. Once settled back in Seattle, I wanted to learn more about what I was getting into, so I sought out shadowing opportunities. One of those opportunities included a doula workshop. It was there that I realized, wow, it’s the nurses who have the most interaction with patients. Our doctors are important, of course, but after seeing the nurses be so hands-on, and learning about the multitude of career paths you can take in nursing, I immediately switched my focus to nursing. From there, I entered the nursing program at Shoreline Community College, which had its challenges, but I got through them all and successfully graduated in 2016.
After Shoreline, I entered the workforce for some experience before returning to study for my BSN at UW Bothell.
WCN: After graduation, where did you start your nursing journey?
Ebony Brown: After becoming an RN, I started working at MultiCare’s Family Birth Center in Auburn to gain some experience in an inpatient setting and did well. However, I saw a lot of trauma in this environment. Labor and delivery are such beautiful things, but there are still so many things that can and do go wrong. After doing labor, delivery, and postpartum for six months, I thought, “this isn’t really where my heart is” and decided to leave. The experience was invaluable though, I learned so many great acuity skills that I still maintain to this day.
After my inpatient experience, I started working for an OBGYN clinic that supports NW Hospital’s Birth Center near Northgate. I loved my time here! Whether it was a teenager coming in for birth control or seeing a mom for all nine months of her pregnancy, I was able to build connections with my patients and support women of all ages and at each end of the spectrum.
WCN: How did you go from a clinical setting to becoming a school nurse?
Ebony Brown: While working at the clinic, I was interested in getting into public health and I had an additional job working as a nurse consultant for Cardea Services. They provide continuing education for health care professionals. My manager there, who I had met through the nursing program at Shoreline where I had done clinicals with her, said, “Have you thought about school nursing? That’s part of public health.” At first, I thought, “Who me?! I don’t have kids, I’m not sure about that, that sounds scary.” But she encouraged me to consider it. I did some research and it was this whole other section of public health. I thought, “Why not?” After all, this was where my love for women’s health and health care started blossoming. It felt full circle.
I was hired on with the Renton School District and immediately connected with the manager and the other nurses in the district. I realized here just how important and involved health care is to our communities and to our children. How a child is cared for in their earlier years can really determine how they’re going to function later in life. It was an excellent opportunity to grow myself even more.
WCN: What are some challenges or difficulties you’ve had to overcome in becoming a nurse?
Ebony Brown: Before entering nursing school, I had a traumatizing experience. I was on a program waitlist, which happens often because we don’t have many nursing programs. However, I received a call from the admitting secretary who said, “Sorry, but there was a mistake and we are rescinding our offer because your spot has been taken by someone else.” And I get it, they had made a mistake. It happens. But the comments made to me on the phone insinuated that I wouldn’t have made it anyway because students on the waitlist don’t typically do well, and for that reason, I should pretty much be grateful I didn’t get in. It was frustrating and insulting. There was no reason for her to say the second part. It was rude and hostile. I was in my early twenties at the time and felt defeated. I was so discouraged that I almost gave up. I hadn’t developed my own voice yet and didn’t feel confident standing up for myself. But thankfully, I had my very supportive family. They said, “No, we’re not going to do that,” and encouraged me to advocate for myself. My brother-in-law, who is very good at mediating, helped me through the situation. And ultimately, they did find a spot for me in the program and I did very well. That was a difficult experience.
Doubting and bullying are also huge. It is difficult to apply the morals and standards you learn in nursing school and residency to the real world of being on the floor; there is a lot of questioning, shaming, and doubting whether you’re good enough to fit into the profession. It is difficult to maintain self-respect and a voice while being on the floor. It is difficult being constantly belittled by patients, physicians, or other nurses, and facing the systemic challenges resulting in a lack of resources and training that we need to do our jobs safely and prudently. These aspects of nursing can put you at risk for burnout. Therefore, I have changed jobs, unapologetically, early on in my career to avoid putting myself in a situation where I completely lose myself, my sense of safety, my truth, and my reason for even becoming a nurse.
WCN: That is a lot to endure. How did you overcome these challenges?
Ebony Brown: First, I will give a shoutout to taking care of your mental health. It didn’t happen right away; I had to search and find counselors that I could relate to and who could help me develop healthy coping mechanisms while facing a variety of negative situations. However, finding someone to talk to was important.
My husband also played a huge part. He constantly empowers me and lifts me up.
At Shoreline, I met Frankie Manning. Ms. Manning is a member of the Mary Mahoney Professional Nurses Organization. They had previously come to my nursing school to present on who Mary Mahoney was, their professional organization, what they did, and what their goals were. I was encouraged to apply for and was awarded their scholarship. But I didn’t just win a scholarship; I gained membership, support, inspiration, and a sense of community. And when I say inspiration, I mean like there are all types of generations in Mary Mahoney—that is what I appreciate. It is not just older nurses who are retired who have done incredible things to move diversity forward in the nursing profession. You go in there and you see young people of color my age who are going through similar things or are doing great things like going on to get their DNP. It is such a cohesive community—I feel supported and I never feel judged there. And they work hard with little resources to make many opportunities available to other nurses of color. They even assign you nurse mentors. Having a group like Mary Mahoney is huge!
WCN: Why do you think diversity is important in the nursing workforce?
Ebony Brown: As a student of nursing, when I did see nurses of color, it gave me hope. When facing challenging times and I felt like maybe I wasn’t going to get through the program, it gave me hope that someone who looks like me could make it through. It helped me to break through those hard and uncomfortable barriers that just seem to be flying at me.
(Continued from WCN News article…)
Additionally, nurses of color bring a different perspective. They discuss the needs of the communities we come from. Building on that, it helps in disrupting those judgmental stereotypes spoken of in the backgrounds of clinics, hospital units, and in other health care settings.
I have seen firsthand what it looks like when different types of clients are treated differently. Things like the tone of the provider, body language, and the amount of time spent with a client during their appointment. I think if we can get more nurses and health care workers of color it would make a huge difference. Look at what is going on in our world now, we are becoming allies, and that’s what we need. We need to help each other learn!
WCN: Let’s talk about school nursing and COVID-19. What has your experience been?
Ebony Brown: First and foremost, I will give a shout out to my boss because for the first time in my nursing career I have found a place where my voice has grown. I finally developed a voice and feel like it is respected.
To speak on COVID-19, it was a total shocker to all of us. We didn’t know it was going to be as serious as it was when it first arrived with that one case up in Everett. I remember, it was mid-March, and I knew I was pregnant by then, and there was so much going on at once. We had parents calling us asking, “What’s the school district doing? Why haven’t you closed down the school district yet?” And of course, at the school level, we don’t make any of those decisions, that’s up to the district.
One of my biggest personal challenges was the narrative that, because we are nurses, we sign up to be put in harm’s way. Yes, we are familiar with the risks, but I don’t agree with the idea that we sign up to be put in danger. Nobody willingly walks off a cliff. I think we should be prepared to go into battle. So, the issues I had centered around not being prepared with PPE. And in the beginning, we didn’t want to intimidate the children with masks when everything was already scary around them and changing rapidly. However, I felt strongly that the masks were important. Now, of course, we know that and we’re all wearing them.
WCN: What are your thoughts on school starting in the fall?
Ebony Brown: I’m nervous. Last year in December, right before winter break, I had a whole week where students were coming in with fevers left and right. I was seeing between 50 and 60 students a day! And our absenteeism was extremely high too. My room was packed. And I share my space with attendance as well, and we were all getting that exposure. I ended up so sick after that. During winter break, I was sick the entire time. I even had to go to the emergency room from my asthma being exasperated. Learning from that experience, our schools just aren’t set up for outbreaks. They are not set up for pandemics.
WCN: Thank you for sharing your experience with us today, what’s next for you?
Ebony Brown: I plan to continue my journey, learning, and growing in public health. I also do still love women’s health, so maybe as I get more comfortable in the role of a school nurse, I will explore having my own girl’s group. Our school has terrific counselors, I would love to work more with them in general in this public health setting.
I’d also like to sit for the National Certification Exam for School Nurses and, sometime in the future, go back to graduate school, possibly for my master’s in public health. And, after I get more settled into motherhood, I plan on being more active in the Mary Mahoney Professional Nursing Organization.