Legacy of Women in Healthcare
By Kara James
This March marks the 36th commemoration of Women’s History Month, celebrating the vital role of women in American history. Because this year’s theme is “Celebrating Women Who Tell Our Stories,” I feel inspired to tell my mother’s story. More than any other narrative, her experiences profoundly impacted the trajectory of my life while connecting me to a larger story we should all celebrate this March – the women nurses who care for us, even in the most challenging circumstances.
My mother, Elsie Davis James, was the most amazing person I have ever known. Finding herself pregnant at 15 in rural Louisiana in 1956, where opportunities for a Black woman were rare, she left home at 22 years old and moved to Los Angeles alone for a chance at a better future.
Once in Los Angeles, my mother began to work toward her goals. She met and married my father and raised a family of four children while working at the post office as a postal union leader, advocating for labor rights. While working full-time, she earned a bachelor’s degree from California State University, Dominguez Hills (CSUDH) – I still remember attending classes with her when I was little. She then went on to law school.
Her energy was boundless. Despite her commitments, she never missed a high school basketball game or track meet. When I reached my twenties, I had to take naps to keep up with her if we had plans to go out together. “Mama” was my best friend, and I thought it would always be that way.
Sadly, in 2010, gallbladder cancer took my beautiful, vibrant, and stylish mother in four short months. In that brief time, her beautiful golden-brown face became dull and sunken, and our roles changed quickly. It was my turn to show her the care and compassion she had instilled in me. As her nurse and advocate, I fed and dressed her while applying pain patches and administering her ever-changing, steadily growing list of medications. Some days she would ask me just to lie there beside her. Those were our best days together.
After she passed, I knew my life would be completely different. I felt called to medicine ever since I read science articles and medical journals my uncle gifted me. Caring for my mom served as a wake-up call and reignited these interests. Following in her footsteps, I returned to school to study medicine at CSUDH. Today, I am a nurse practitioner and have worked in healthcare for the past nine years.
My story is my own, but my path is not. When I decided to pursue a career in healthcare, it connected me to a much larger women’s story in the U.S. – the nurses who tirelessly care for their patients. And it is women who primarily do this work. The U.S. Census reports that over three-quarters of the country’s full-time, year-round healthcare workers are women. Nursing is the nation’s largest healthcare profession, with women making up 85% of registered nurses.
Women have served as nurses in the U.S. since the Civil War. These women, and those that followed, have provided care in the most challenging times and places, from battlefields to surgical rooms to overcrowded clinics. In fact, the eight women on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC., are all nurses. More recently, the COVID-19 pandemic has had severe repercussions for healthcare workers, including nurses, who face circumstances most will never understand – trying to save patients from a new, incredibly contagious virus while struggling to protect themselves and their loved ones from contracting it.
Even in “normal” healthcare settings, nursing requires extraordinary stamina. Nurses see people die despite their every effort. As they treat and comfort people at their most scared, nurses are on their feet for hours while too often being underpaid, understaffed, and underrepresented in leadership positions.
Given the physical, mental, and financial hardships, you may ask why nurses do it. And the answer is simple: Everyone deserves care, advocacy, and comfort in their time of need. This Women’s History Month reminds us to honor the women who care for us and those we care for, including nurses and mothers.
Kara James is a Nurse Practitioner with Planned Parenthood Los Angeles, providing direct clinical care to patients since 2015. As an evidenced-based clinician and activist, Kara’s work is framed through racial equity and anti-racism. She also played a vital role in creating the Black Health Initiative in 2020 to promote holistic well-being and health in Los Angeles’ Black communities.