My eyes scan the room as beeps, coughs, and yawns coalesce into a cacophony orbiting and collapsing my eardrums. The stethoscope around my neck feels tight. My blue scrubs stick to my skin like a mummy’s bandages. The lights strangle my eyes. My stomach flips.
It’s 7 a.m. and I’ve paced these corridors, which feel like catacombs, for 12 hours straight. No breaks, no smiles, no supplies. I run my hands through my hair wondering how to make this work.
I hear the screech of the cleaning lady’s wheels and usually this annoys me. However, this time I have an idea.
I ask her to meet me in the breakroom.
In the break room, I offer Julie $5 each day if she steals supplies from the Med-Surg unit. I feel queasy about stealing, but I don’t have many options. I’m in charge of the unit and we had run out of supplies and couldn’t get more.
This arrangement works for about 5 days. But I realize that I will go broke from this method and eventually someone will find out.
So, I call hospital administration. I tell him I’ll call 60 Minutes if he doesn’t give us some supplies. Two hours later we have supplies: bandages, gloves, gauze, and tape that could last us a couple weeks. The administrator is taken aback by my bravado and pulls me aside.
“So, you’re serious about getting these patients help. I could see this role is stressing you out. How can I help you?”
“I don’t know. I’m tired and confused and I don’t really know if I can keep this up.”
“Well, you certainly have a passion. Would you ever consider getting into management?”
I didn’t incorporate his feedback until much later and after I moved to San Francisco and took a ICU staff nurse position at UCSF.
Helen Ripple, Chief Nursing Officer at UCSF, instructed me to go back to school. She wanted me to get management training and not practice from the seat of my pants.
In leadership and management, there’s a need to be prepared. I was good at technical skills, but that doesn’t mean I was great at managing people.
I felt like I had PTSD from my Johns Hopkins experience. I went back to ‘nope, didn’t want to do this.’ The chief nursing officer said if I wanted to move to management I would have to get an advanced degree.
The thought seemed bizarre at first. However, given the fact that nursing wasn’t even my first choice as a job, I was definitely willing to try something new. But I was hesitant. It took over 9 years to decide that I was ready to leave the bedside and pursue a management job.
Antrum grew up in Connecticut. Her mom died when she was young and her brother-in-law and sister took her and her brother in. Growing up, the people who influenced her the most were her sister and brother-in-law. She was a nurse and he was vice president of a bank. Her brother-in-law taught her the skill of listening and preached the value of keeping your word. These two lessons would never leave Antrum.
Her sister taught her the value of patient care and the overall value of nursing. She started as a dietary aide and went on to be a LVN then became a registered nurse. The fact that her sister was a dialysis and infection-control nurse demonstrated to Antrum that nurses could do other things besides patient care at the bedside.
Antrum originally wanted to attend UCLA after high school. Yet, her relatives felt that it was too far. One of Antrum’s childhood friends convinced her to apply to the Hampton Institute, a historically black university. She did her research on the school and felt excited about the idea of going there.
She applied and got accepted. Her friend did not. Antrum wanted her friend to take her place and she called admissions. Antrum explained, “She’s going to take my spot ’cause I’m not going to go… and so the admissions officer said, ‘ma’am, that’s not how it works.’”
Antrum ended up going, and it changed her life. She gained lifelong friends from the school. To this day, they remind her of who she is and that she’s good. Also, they made her laugh.
“And they give me the perspective that I’m a good person,” said Antrum. “I think my friends are honest, but they are also the ones that cheer me on. They say, ‘You can do it. We’re really proud of you.’ And I think for people of color, we need people to tell us that.”
While in school, Antrum originally enrolled in the mass media department with an aspiration to become a camerawoman. With a camera, she could watch the emotions and stories of people unfold before her eyes through her lens. However, the department emphasized journalism, and Antrum felt that journalism was a bit too intrusive for her. So, she switched to nursing where she could continue connecting with others.
She was an okay nursing student. She went along with the classes, but her revelation happened a bit later.
“So I was an OK student and it was only when I started going to the hospital and actually touching patients and working with people did I realize–wow. There’s something to be said about coming home and saying ‘ I made somebody feel a little better,’” she said.
It’s this connection in a physical sense that spoke to her. “In medicine, we can help heal and care but we can’t always cure,” Antrum said. “People need that just as much as being cured. To know that somebody can hold their hand. It came across so clearly in COVID-19. When people were dying, nurses would go in and hold the patient’s hand to make sure that they weren’t dying alone. The gift of touch is so important. I loved giving patient’s backrubs. The skin is the biggest organ in our body. You can feel heat. You can see the sweat. You can see if they are in pain. That’s the beauty of nursing,” said Antrum.
However, nursing wasn’t without its challenges. Antrum remembers one time when a black patient asked her a question about a condition she had. Antrum answered. Then, a white nurse came in and she heard the patient ask the nurse the same question.
Antrum broke down crying. It hurt her that her word wasn’t seen as valuable as the other nurse’s. As Antrum puts it, “We too have to be better at trusting our own people who are in the medical profession, and so I think that’s important. And then finally, on the other side of this is hope, right?”
“When I talk about hope it’s on two levels. Hope that the information that you’re being provided you can understand and comply with,” she said. “On that level I hope that people of color who come to receive healthcare understand and are getting all the information they need to take care of themselves. Also, we can be a very patriarchal profession, meaning ‘we know best and you don’t.’ There are times when I want to go in one direction and they want to go in another.”
After graduating with her nursing degree, Antrum wanted to move to Saudi Arabia and work as a nurse. Her father asked her to stay in the United States. Instead she moved to Maryland. Antrum worked as an ICU nurse at Johns Hopkins Hospital for four years. She then moved to San Francisco to become an ICU nurse at UCSF Medical Center.
During that time, Antrum decided to go back to school for her graduate degree. She moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan to attend the University of Michigan School of Public Health. At the University of Michigan School of Public Health, she received a Master’s Degree in Health Service and Management Policy.
Following her graduation from the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health, Antrum applied for an administrative fellowship at UCSF Medical Center. However, the administrator never told her how much money she would make. So, Antrum never asked,assuming she would be well compensated. She accepted the position.
At the same time, she was recruited for an emergency department nursing director position in San Francisco. She never interviewed for the job, even though she found out that the ED nursing director job paid almost twice as much as the UCSF job. She talked with her brother-in-law about the decision, and he reminded her about the power of keeping your word. She kept her promise to UCSF and accepted the fellowship.
“He was right in that the fellowship gave me opportunities and exposure to executive leadership that I would not have had if I was an emergency department director,” Antrum said.
“And so I tell that story all the time. To say sometimes you can’t see the path that you’re meant to take and what happens down the road.”
She is now the Senior Vice President and Chief Operating Officer at UCSF because she stuck to her word.
Antrum believes that we can address the nursing shortage in the following ways.
First, she believes that nursing schools have to hire more faculty to teach the practical skills needed for quality patient care.
We have to re-emphasize the joy of nursing and patient care. Due to the fact that so many people are now burnt out.
She believes that targeting more people of color and healthcare veterans could go a long way to helping eradicate the shortage. Minorities and healthcare veterans are often underrepresented in the nursing ranks and could bring a great contribution to the field.
Antrum also wants nurses to partner with different fields like engineering or IT. This could help design systems that eliminate errors, reduce administrative burden, and increase the time that nurses spend in patient care.
Overall, Antrum seems very hopeful about the future of nursing. “I think nurses can do anything,” Antrum said. “I am glad to see my fellow nurse leaders take on roles such as hospital presidents, board directors, and CEOs of foundations. I think nursing can contribute in any business or field. You have to understand the dimensions or layers that a nurse brings is amazing.”
Looking back on her career, one thing that she would tell her younger self as a piece of advice is to “enjoy the moment.”
“I would say remember your purpose and find your joy in all you do.”