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Trailblazing Black nurses still honored at BRG

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BATON ROUGE - Surgeons, doctors, and nurses shape our experiences with medicine. And over the past year, society gained a deeper appreciation for them and all they do for us in difficult times.

In Baton Rouge, a group of African-American nurses have been remembered for shaping the medical experience for black people in the area while they made a way for all black nurses to follow in their footsteps.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words, and when looking at picture from the more than 20 years ago Catherine Jackson feels fulfilled.

“What's in this picture is a lot of knowledge. A lot of love,” said Catherine Jackson, a retired licensed practical nurse.

“This is what I could think about now, not then. I couldn't think about what was coming behind me. I was just working for the moment,” she continued.

She started her career as nurse in 1959, following the lead of Ms. Ida Henderson at Baton Rouge General, with no idea she was opening the door for Black nurses to follow.

“We cared about patients number one, not the fact that it was wrong that they couldn’t go on other floors,” Jackson said.

In an all-white hospital, Henderson, Jackson and others were the first group of Black women hired to work at Baton Rouge General Hospital on the only floor for Black patients and staff at the time, known as ‘Four-South.’

“We had to work extra hard because we did not have the equipment that the other floors had,” Jackson explained. “We had pass-me-down equipment, secondhand equipment but we still did the best that we could with what we had.... We had mothers, babies, old people. We had children with polio, meningitis. We had so much on the floor. We had patients on the hall."

Despite segregated units, cafeteria, and even IV bags, the women did what nurses are trained to do, and they taught others to do the same.

“Our protocol was take care of the patient first,” she said.

With that same picture, and more than 40 years as a nurse, Monica Nijoka is the chief nursing officer at BRG. And she shared what she learned from women like Henderson and Jackson all those years ago.

“It did not matter what race, religion, beliefs anything that you had. Miss Henderson treated every patient as if they were her own family,” Nijoka said.

According to Nijoka, the women exemplified what nurses should be, setting an example for all of them.

“I have a great love for all those ladies to make me the best at what I do, and that’s what their initiative was. You're going to be the best nurse when you get out of school,” Nijoka said.

That lesson of doing your best is one Jackson says she still passes to aspiring nurses, because she believes it will be worth it in the long run.

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