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  • Jeanna Vazquez

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  • Jeanna Vazquez

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Nurses By Day, Social Justice Activists By Night

Local nurses during a Black Lives Matter protest.

Laura Chechel, center, with Christina Kelley and Danisha Jenkins on right, standing together with other local nurses during a Black Lives Matter protest in 2020.

Since May 2020, a team of registered nurses in San Diego have taken part in efforts advocating for racial equity and social justice. After working hospital shifts, they work in communities, alongside protestors, at demonstrations taking place in response to the death of George Floyd and others attributed to police violence against people of color.

Laura Chechel, nurse manager of the cardiovascular intensive care unit at UC San Diego Health, Danisha Jenkins, PhD candidate, and Christina Kelley, both with Sharp Chula Vista Medical Center, are at the center of this collaborative, grassroots medical response.

“Danisha and I were discussing how painful it was to watch the video of George Floyd’s murder and how we supported the protests erupting around the world,” said Chechel. “We also knew we have this skill set as nurses and wanted to use those skills to aid in the movement. But we weren’t sure how it would translate in this environment.”

“So, after attending a protest here in San Diego, where my colleagues Danisha and Christina saw so many potential risks for injuries, we collaborated to render aid in emergent situations at the protests.”

Since coming together, nearly 30 nurses from multiple health care organizations in San Diego County have volunteered at more than 200 protests.

Laura Chechel and Danisha Jenkins.

Laura Chechel, left, and Danisha Jenkins, right, are at the center of this collaborative, grassroots medical response.

The protest taskforce received support from the American Nurses Association-California. Through the association, Chechel and Jenkins had previously initiated a San Diego Region Task Force to focus on advocating for policies and resources for the homeless community. Last May, Chechel, Jenkins and Kelley pivoted their efforts to participate in social justice movement protests happening around the world by creating the San Diego Protest Medical Response Taskforce with the American Nurses Association-California.

“While supporting protests as volunteer nurses, we treat people with pepper spray injuries, baton injuries, trips and falls; some individuals also have minor injuries after being hit by cars,” said Chechel. “The most important thing we accomplished was putting into action our ethical ideals that racism is a public health issue.”

Chechel said that after every protest, she and nurse-colleagues feel honored to be a part of the movement, though sometimes it is hard to process what they have witnessed and, sometimes, they are the targets of attack.

“It is a privilege to stand side-by-side with the community, to be a part of this effort, this moment of activism, but like the protestors, the nurses would at times be attacked.” said Chechel. “Still, we were incredibly inspired by the protestors who persevered in advocating for racial equity and social justice despite continued attacks.”

Black Lives Matter protest 2020.

This March, the volunteer nurses were recognized by the American Nurses Association-California with the 2021 President’s Award for their work in supporting the social justice movements taking place this year.

The COVID-19 pandemic has complicated their mission, but also offered teaching moments.

At first, volunteer nurses provided masks and education on COVID-19 to protestors to help stem viral spread of SARS-CoV-2 during the demonstrations. Now, they provide information on the importance of receiving the COVID-19 vaccine.

“As nurses, we were dealing with a crisis at work and a crisis in the streets.” said Chechel. “The trust we built within the protests allowed individuals to feel comfortable enough to ask us questions about COVID-19 and the vaccine.”

Chechel hopes these interactions and discussions on vaccine efficacy will lead to an increase in vaccine acceptance.

This March, the volunteer nurses were recognized by the American Nurses Association-California with the 2021 President’s Award for their outstanding contributions to the nursing profession and for upholding the nursing code of ethics.

Chechel said it is inspiring to witness nurses come together from different health care organizations within San Diego County for a common cause.

“Racial inequity and social injustice has been happening for too long, and as a leader in the nursing community, I felt it was important to use my privilege,” said Chechel. “We rendered aid and were accomplices in this fight that people of color have been fighting for a very long time. It’s a huge testament to our nursing profession and what we stand for.”

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