It’s early. Really early. I stumble my way out of bed like a toddler learning how to walk, put on my scrubs, and get myself ready for a 12 hour shift at the hospital. I get there, find my nurse preceptor, and off we go to receive report on our patients. So here I am, a student (strike one) who’s skin is much more brown than you would expect from someone living in a state with little sunshine (strike two) with a scarf on her head (strike three) walking into a stranger’s room, while the news channel they are watching is debating if Muslims should be allowed into this country, expecting them to trust me enough to care for them for the next 12 hours.
“Hi, my name is Sara, I’m a student nurse at Linfield, and I will be helping take care of you today!” I introduce myself, charming them with a big, warm smile, hoping that will be enough for them to get over at least one of the three strikes. I stand there anxiously, trying to read their body language, awaiting their response, and hoping I wore enough deodorant that day to overcome my current state of perspiration. And surprisingly, it works: both the deodorant and my patient’s positive reception towards me. But why does it work? Could it be my smile? Friendly personality? Maybe they just received a dose of morphine? Perhaps it’s simpler than that. Perhaps my patients don’t see those strikes. Perhaps they merely see someone whose job is to care for them, for which they are grateful. Yet, I go in there overthinking and doing the one thing I don’t want people to do to me…stereotype. I (wrongly) think that because my patient is from a certain demographic that they are going to think of me in a negative light. With all that’s going on in the world these days, how could I not have my guard up? Instead, they are very kind and very curious to learn more about me and my background. And que the questions:
Q: Why do you wear that on your head?
A: Why do you wear pants?
Q: Where are you from? Like, before Portland…where did you come from?
A: My mother’s uterus.
Q: I like your hat! Can I touch it?
Q: Does the color of your scarf mean anything?
A: It means it’s what’s clean.
Q: Wow, how is your English so good?
A: Wow, how are your manners so bad?
Q: What color is your hair?
A: Actually I’m a red head. I’ve got a Blake Griffin thing going on.
Q: Is it only married women that have to wear a towel on their head?
A: Gosh, I think I hear my instructor calling me…
Ok, fine, those were not my true responses to those questions. But all those questions have been questions I have been asked, no exaggerations. It’s hard to answer these kinds of questions, especially in a professional manner. Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on your perspective), I am used to it and have become fairly good at answering respectfully and professionally. I have also become pretty good at reading someone’s intentions when they ask me these questions and typically, most people have good intentions and really are just wanting to learn more. For all I know, I am most likely the first Egyptian and/or Muslim they have ever met. Because of the way I dress, it can make it easy for people to stereotype me. For example, people sometimes assume I don’t know how to speak English, that I am very conservative, or that I am repressed because I cover my hair. In reality, the opposite of those stereotypes is true and as soon as someone starts talking to me, they have that realization.
On the flip side, I had the opportunity to use my Arabic language skills to make a new dad more comfortable after his daughter was born. Once I found out where he was from (a question that I did not ask him, for the record), I began to converse with him in Arabic. I immediately saw his face light up, shoulders relax, and attitude change. Because we were able to connect on a level that he had not been accustomed to in his short time here in the States, he felt more comfortable asking me questions and took more initiative in providing care for his newborn daughter.
While we all have different life experiences which have helped us shape how we view the world, I am able to bring a perspective from a culture that is not only a minority in America, but one that has been misunderstood and misrepresented, especially in the last decade or so. I carry that with me all the time; not as a burden, but as an opportunity. Every interaction I have with someone new, I hope to make a lasting, positive impression on them, slowly changing the misconceptions of my culture, one conversation at a time, one patient at a time.
As I turn the corner into my last semester of nursing school, I have learned that confidence makes all the difference in the world. Walk into your patients’ rooms like you belong there, because you do. But have enough humility to know what you don’t know and stop to ask questions. You are there to care for people potentially during the toughest days of their lives. They may or may not care about your ethnic or religious background, but they will always care about your compassion, confidence in your skills, and ability to provide quality patient care. Oh, and have a good sense of humor. Because whoever said “laughter is the best medicine” was so right.
Sara Hussein is a fourth semester student at Linfield Good Samaritan School of Nursing.