For many Americans in 2020, the primary cause of anxiety in their daily lives was the COVID-19 pandemic. But for Hazzauna Underwood, the coronavirus pandemic is only one crisis the nation is currently facing.
Hazzauna is a post-anesthesia care unit (PACU) nurse at Overlake Medical Center in Bellevue and an emergency rapid-response nurse (known as SWAT) at Swedish Edmonds. In March, Hazzauna was working in the emergency room at Overlake and providing care for the sickest COVID-19 patients at both hospitals — where the list of patients with severe symptoms was growing longer and longer.
“We deal with a lot of isolation precautions for other diseases, like MRSA and pneumonia, and we know how to manage them, but this was something else,” she recalls about the start of the pandemic in Washington state. “Now, we have a condition that we know absolutely nothing about; not only that, but we’re concerned we’re going to get it and infect our families. It was then that I realized things were about to go from bad to worse.”
In the weeks that followed, hospital census surged; stress was high, and PPE was low. Because she worked for two health systems, Hazzauna found it difficult to keep up with two different sets of ever-changing protocols. A single mother of four, she also tried to balance caring for her children and their safety with the concerns she had for her patients.
Then, on May 25, George Floyd, a Black man, was killed by a white police officer in Minneapolis. His death, which was one occurrence amid centuries of injustices against Black Americans, became an international spotlight that exposed the police brutality and systemic racism that still exist in the U.S. today — a light that was bright enough to shift the national conversation and focus away from the COVID-19 pandemic.
“For me, as an African American woman, police brutality has been my corona since before corona showed its face,” Hazzauna later told The Seattle Times reporter Brendan Kiley. She was one of five Puget Sound health care workers of color featured in the June 9 story, “’Racism is the biggest public health crisis of our time’: Health care workers of color fight twin pandemics.”
Racism doesn’t start and end at the hands of police in the streets — it spills into every other aspect of American life. In her 13 years working as a nurse, Hazzauna says she has witnessed innumerable examples of systemic racism in the health care system, including seeing patients of color be offered less access to pain medication compared to white patients, and decisions made on which patient gets a hallway bed and which gets a room that she says were based on race. Hazzauna says she and her fellow nurses of color have also been targets of racism and racial biases by their colleagues and members of leadership.
These injustices in her workplace, as well as outside it, inspired Hazzauna to join thousands of health care workers of all races in a peaceful protest in downtown Seattle on June 6 — now known as the Medical Workers’ March or the “White Coats for Black Lives” demonstration.
“The treatment of a patient should not be based on the color of their skin,” she says. “So, the march was for all of us to come together and say we’re going to do better. We stand united that we want better for our patients and know they deserve better.”
Despite the two pandemics, comorbidities that continue to severely impact the health and safety of nurses and their patients, Hazzauna remains hopeful for the future.
“If it’s hot, get in the kitchen,” she says. “Let’s do what we need to do to create a safer and better nation — where we can be better caregivers, coworkers, family members, friends, and ultimately, better to ourselves. At the end of the day, we’re all in this together.”