If you have ever been sick, you know how important nurses are. They are really unsung heroes in the medical profession. As we continue our celebration of black history, we take a look at how nursing began for Blacks in America.
Susie King Taylor from Liberty County became the first black army nurse. She took care of an all black army troop named the First South Carolina Volunteers, 33rd Regiment. She worked with them for four years during the Civil War. Years later in 1879, Mary Eliza Mahoney became America's first black professional, licensed nurse. She's considered the mother of African-American nurses.
While it is not unusual to see black nurses today, we don't see many black nurse practitioners. Laura Wiggins of Savannah is one of a few. That's why she is also a woman of influence.
Three years ago, Terry Heidt had very little to smile about. He was diagnosed with colon cancer. He says he owes his life to Nurse Practitioner Laura Wiggins and the first class care she gave him through an in-hospital service for terminally ill patients called the Steward Center for Palliative Care. It specializes in the relief of the pain, symptoms and stress of serious illness. "She makes me feel welcome and she says you have to fight. She kept me fighting when I wanted to give up. There were plenty of times when I was taking chemo and radiation and I just wanted to quit," explained Terry Heidt.
"Never did I imagine that I would be talking to people about the serious nature of death and dying and comfort and support but I would not trade anything," added Laura Wiggins.
Even though she knows this is right where she should be, Laura admits her work often takes her on an emotional roller coaster. "Those of our patients who are able to be cured and live longer gives us great satisfaction. On the other side of that, I have many conversations with patients and families with treatments are not going well and the vital options are running out. We have to talk about hospice care and transitioning into that the last six months of life," explained Laura.
In spite of advanced degrees and many prestigious awards including being named one of the Top 40 under 40, Laura admits her proudest moment came down to a doctor telling her father what a wonderful job she does every day for her patients. Through her tears, she said, "To have a physician that I worked with paying that kind of compliment for my father to hear … it far outweighs any awards that I could ever have."
It also reminds her of the many throughout history who have paved the way for her including Susie King Taylor and Mary Eliza Mahoney. "I want to be able to inspire people to go as far as I have gotten and if I can push them forward, I want to do that too." Little does she know, she's already inspiring others.
Laura Wiggins was the first black female to earn a master's degree from Armstrong Atlantic with a concentration as an adult nurse practitioner. She is only one of two African American palliative care nurse practitioners in Georgia.