Cheryl Nelson

#IamMGH Black Voices - Meet Cheryl Nelson

#IamMGH tells the stories of our people. In honour of Black History Month, we’re centring the voices and lived experiences of our Black staff and physicians throughout February. Meet Cheryl Nelson, manager of Operational Readiness at Michael Garron Hospital (MGH).

“I’ve been at MGH for more than 15 years. I started as a staff nurse in the Emergency Department (ED) and then moved into a clinical resource leader role. I now work as a manager in Operational Readiness, where I help lead the behind-the-scenes work that will ensure a smooth transition for our staff and physicians when we move into MGH’s new Ken and Marilyn Thomson Patient Care Centre next year.

I’ve always enjoyed helping people and I’ve always been interested in science and biology. Because of this, nursing is something I connected with early on. I’m also really passionate about the opportunities to teach in the roles I’ve held. I love mentoring others and helping them get to that aha moment. On the flip side, I’ve met so many wonderful mentors along the way who have really helped shape the kind of nurse and health care professional I am today.

As a leader and educator, I tend to use storytelling, especially about lived experiences, as a way to connect with others. A few months ago, I shared an experience I had as a patient’s family member with MGH’s Inclusion Alliance. I accompanied my son to a doctor’s appointment where we experienced many microaggressions. The physician made a number of assumptions about us based on racist stereotypes about Black people. When I share this experience with large audiences, I find the reaction tends to be ‘I can’t believe that happened.’ Whereas when I share it with other Black people, it’s more ‘I hate it when that happens,’ which, unfortunately, speaks to how common these interactions are.

As a health care provider, I’ve also experienced these microaggressions. Patients have asked me if I know other health care providers just because I’m Black. Or I’ll hear things like, ‘Oh, you Island girls, I can never understand you’ — even though I have no discernable accent. I personally don’t believe the majority of people who make comments like these mean any harm. But if we don’t educate these individuals and let them know that their statements are hurtful and rooted in racism, they’ll continue to happen.

While working in the ED, I also had the opportunity to work on a project where I connected with patients in the community over the telephone. One afternoon, one of the patients with whom I had been closely working with showed up in the ED. Excited to see her, I introduced myself and we had a very positive conversation. Later that evening, I followed up over the phone on one of our scheduled meetings, and she excitedly told me she me was happy to hear from me as she looked forward to our conversations. She said, ‘I met your little Black girl. Good girl.’ I paused for a moment then proceeded to inform her that I was the ‘little Black girl.’ She then cheerfully responded, ‘Well, isn’t that something. You sound… um… you sounded different.’

A lot of the time when I’m experiencing microaggressions like these, I think ‘Should I say something? Am I being overly sensitive? If I do say something, will this conversation turn out negatively? Should I accept it?’ By bringing awareness to these interactions in health care and beyond, I hope I can inspire people to think twice before making comments that can be hurtful. I think about my kids and the experiences they’ve had and will have in the healthcare system. I want things to be better for them.”

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