Our Spotlight series highlights a new nurse from the SHIFT audience each month. We ask the same set of questions each time, but, of course, we get all kinds of answers. The individual stories and surprise twists in these conversations make us laugh, cry and feel proud. Over time, we hope to discover both what makes each of you unique and understand what ties all of us together as nurses.
Irnise Williams is in what she calls her “zone of genius”…and she’ll make you want to find yours, too. When we spoke, Irnise was working as a travel nurse in Baltimore, but she’s also Your Nurse Lawyer, working to improve medical access to marginalized communities and help providers protect their licenses and interests in malpractice cases. As both a nurse and an attorney (oh, and a mom of two; no big deal), she’s equally as dedicated to health care as she is to the justice system. She told us how she wakes up every day with passion and purpose for her work, and we know her entrepreneurial, community-minded spirit will inspire you as much as it inspired us.
Why did you decide to go into nursing?
Growing up, I spent a lot of time with my grandparents, who had a number of chronic health problems. My grandmother had diabetes, and I used to take her blood sugar, but I also used to go to the store to get her candy. I didn’t understand what diabetes really was, of course, and she would use me to feed her sweet tooth! After a while, I started to see her get sickly and I would go to the hospital with her. My grandfather was fairly healthy, but then he had a heart attack and needed a quadruple bypass, which left him blind, and he lost his toes, and it was a long, hard recovery. I met all the people who cared for both of my grandparents. I used to go to their primary care appointments — I loved their physician — and so health care was just kind of in me. I felt like great care was what I wanted for other people. I wanted everyone to have the same positive experience my grandparents had. I have a big heart, and nursing just felt very right.
Tell us about a time when it was really hard to be a nurse or a time that made you question being a nurse.
Being a new nurse — you’re new, you’re learning, and I worked in the OR at [Johns] Hopkins, which is a very prestigious place with very experienced and well-trained surgeons who want things in a specific way. Being in a room with someone who is very particular and wants things in a specific way, in the beginning, was extremely scary for me.
For everyone, throughout their career, there are days where you lose patients. I worked in hospice, and so I lost a lot of people. That was really hard. I saw mothers who were very young who had breast cancer. One had fought her cancer. She was in remission. She took her kids to Disneyland. Two weeks later, she wasn’t feeling well, came back — it had spread through her whole body. She literally went to sleep and never woke up. That broke me. I was like, oh my God. The other patient that I had that really, really, really stuck with me was another woman who was a mom; she had two kids who were older and one who was younger, and she just did not want to leave [her child]. I just remember holding her hand at the end and having to instruct her family, like, this is it. This is the end; everyone needs to stop moving around and come help her transition. You have those kinds of days. And people think hospice is always bad; it’s not. If you understand peace in transition, and you have a spiritual heart, then it it’s easy work to do.
Then the pandemic. It has been nothing like anyone has ever seen before in the sense of just the loss and grieving and people who have lost and had to still come to work, or people who have had COVID-19 and still have to show up. This is like a natural disaster, this is like Katrina, but, like, for months on end. Like, never-ending.
One of the reasons I went back to the hospital is because I’m healthy, I’m strong. My first assignment was at a place in New York, where it was pretty much ground zero. That was where some of the first patients were. So many of them had gotten sick. And so many of them have lost a lot of colleagues, and there is so much bitterness and so much pain. You can’t really help others heal when you’re really in a bad place. I think for health-care workers this last year, we have not been in a good place. I don’t think that we are working well in the sense of taking care of patients, not because we’re not good at what we do, but because we’re just so broken. Hopefully, in the next year, we can begin a better healing process.
Who inspires you?
I am really inspired by my children. I have two boys and they are so smart … to see them just grow and evolve and to adapt — we have gone through lots of changes in a very short period of time with moving and jobs and different careers and experiences. I think that really inspires me to just figure it out, right? Because my kids are watching. If I’m doing what I’m supposed to do in this life and living out my purpose, my kids can see the best of me, and then they can become the best them.
And so many amazing women who are so committed to doing better and creating a better life for their communities or their families, and it inspires me. When you take care of a woman, you take care of a village. I have what I call my “business bestie.” The people who are entrepreneurs are also in health care. The women that I work with and the women that are opening up businesses and the women that are trying to create wealth and legacy for their children really inspired me to get up in the game.
Describe your SHIFT BFF. Why are they your best friend on the job?
As a travel nurse, I prayed to find someone like me who is motivated and trying to juggle two different things and has a family, and I connected with a nurse educator named Tiffany. She runs New Nurse Academy, which is an organization that supports nurses in leadership, in education, and all these things. I was just figuring things out and revising my practice, and we just matched and connected. We did a couple collaborations together, and she would tell everyone about me, and she really elevated me faster than I could have elevated myself. Tiffany is my business bestie, and she is just a really dope person with a huge heart.
Tell us something about your specialty in nursing that other nurses may not know.
I’ve always wanted to help both patients and health care providers, and it’s really hard to do that when you’re in litigation, because you have to be one side or the other. You can’t help both.
That’s my issue with medical malpractice law. I either had to be on the side of the patient, and you have to drag the other side down in order to defend who you’re representing. That’s just how the game goes, but I wanted to play both sides, and I couldn’t figure it out, and last year I realized that both sides need to be educated. You know, health care workers don’t really know what the legal side of health law really means, what that looks like, what is the step-by-step process. If you’re reported to the board, how do you protect yourself, or what steps do you take to do that?
And patients don’t really know, like, what to expect in health care relationships, how to make sure they get the best out of those relationships. And then, when things go bad, what should they do? I think we can all say that not every health care worker is perfect and actually mistakes happen.
In addition to law, so much of what I do is a lot of education. Community education, free education on social media, and I’m also really focusing on webinars. I’m releasing a course that specifically works with health care providers to teach them how to be better providers to avoid lawsuits. The cost of lawsuits and litigation increases the price of health care and it decreases the quality of care, because we’re so defensive. And that’s my passion, to provide quality care, and how that then leads to a decrease in liability, and it leads to better outcomes for both the provider and the patient.
Describe your community’s health. What is your hope for your community’s health in the future?
I’m in Baltimore now, but I’m from the Bronx. And in the Bronx, we are 62nd out of 62 counties when it comes to health outcomes.
People don’t have food, transportation, money. You realize that access to basic needs is going to be the death of someone, even more than their disease. The barriers that so many people face for just seeking basic health care is overwhelming. Clinics will take Medicaid patients, but all the specialists are miles away downtown in the city. Nobody is trying to meet their needs. They just got a grocery store in that neighborhood two years ago. We did not have a full-service grocery store in an area where thousands of people lived. Imagine being elderly or having any type of disability and having to get on the bus to get healthy food. When I think about community health, we have to look at things holistically. Look at food. Look at housing. Look at criminal justice. They all work together.
What is your vision for the future of nursing?
My hope for nursing is that we all become advocates and involved in Congress and advocating for ourselves, and that we begin to speak up and for people to see what we go through. We assume that everyone understands what we go through, and maybe they can see it, but that doesn’t mean that they understand it. I think that that’s one of my bigger goals, getting as many nurses — and those who don’t work in nursing — involved in advocacy on a federal and state level.
How can nurses be better to each other?
I think that we have to give each other so much more grace. Like, health care is a 24-hour show, and in reality, nobody is perfect. We have to work together to provide that continuity. The other day, someone on another unit gave my patient medication, and it feels good, it makes you pay it forward to someone to support someone else in the same way that someone supported you. And I think that that’s one of the biggest improvements that we can have is to give each other some grace, but also be supportive of each other.
Describe one of your best shifts ever.
My best shift happened late last summer, when I realized that this pandemic was not ending anytime soon. I literally have to invest in myself and ideas to create some boundaries for my family, my husband, and say, I need you to support me. I think that has proven to be the biggest shift in my life to allow me to pursue both passions that I have. That’s let me, as Tiffany says, operate in your zone of genius. This is my zone of genius. I’m so passionate about it, I just I wake up and I can talk about it all day. This is all I do. I don’t sleep, because I love what I do. And I think that was the biggest shift, for me, finding out how I could really merge both patient care and health law and make it make sense so that I could essentially serve both sides.