Fighting for a place, Daisy Lara’s journey
Daisy Lara’s story as a Latina nurse is one in a growing number of Latinos now on the front lines of a pandemic.
Daisy Lara is at the point in her nursing career she’d always dreamed of reaching. But when she looks back on the journey, she often wonders how she got here.
“How did this even happen?” she asks from time to time.
Lara was born to a Dominican mother and Puerto Rican father in the Philadelphia suburb of West Chester.
Much of her early exposure to nursing came from helping them navigate doctor’s appointments. Her English provided her parents the window to proper medical care, but also showed young Daisy the system’s barriers and shortcomings.
She can remember as a second-grader, the doctors not taking her seriously at first.
“I learned quickly to become assertive,” she said.
Lara’s mother was also caregiver to an elderly neighbor for years and she would often tag along.
“She would kind of throw me in sometimes and I was completely overwhelmed and very intimidated,” said Lara.
Despite the fear, the experience had a major impact on her.
The elderly neighbor was a caucasian male, but the joy Lara’s mother brought to him made him not want anyone else as a caregiver.
“When she walked in the room he brightened up. You could see that his day was going to get better,” said Lara.
That’s also in spite of both hardly understanding each other.
The impression led Lara to tell others of her nursing ambitions. She got many mixed reactions at a time when the profession wasn’t as respected.
“Really? You’re gonna go and wipe butts?” she remembered being a popular response.
“I think we do more than that,” she would say.
After graduating from West Chester East High School, Lara attended West Chester University as the first in her family to go to college.
Initially, those early comments about her nursing dreams deterred her from studying psychology. It also didn’t help that she felt alone as a Latina in the health field.
“I did not know one nurse who was Latina. I didn’t even know a doctor that was Latina,” said Lara.
It took her until her junior year for those fears to subside and while still going for her psychology degree, Lara also picked up a minor in health sciences.
Health sciences were in the same department as nursing and it gave her a chance to interact with some nursing students. In them, Lara finally found a more diverse population among future nurses and alumni and decided to go for it herself.
“They’re doing it, I’m doing it,” she said at the time.
She graduated from West Chester University with her degree in psychology and immediately went back for a degree in nursing.
As Lara went through school, she found most of the former assumptions about the field were myths. For one, the scope of opportunity in the field was much larger than she previously thought or was told.
“It’s very flexible,” she said. “You could go from working in critical care to working in hospice, to working at a school or on a cruise ship.”
Going to school for nursing also introduced Lara to its complexities, something she did not see shadowing her caregiver mother. In her words, “critical thinking” is the most vital part of the job.
Lara said she didn’t get that experience in the classroom, but in her first couple of years working in the telemetry unit at Brandywine hospital.
“That’s when you’re learning to deal with all types of factors coming at you: the phone’s ringing, one patient’s in the bathroom, another one is throwing up in another room, another one has pain, the doctor is calling you,” she said. “It’s all these things at once hitting you, so you learn how to navigate and prioritize and think critically, ‘what’s coming next?’”
For eight years, Lara worked in telemetry at both Brandywine Hospital and later, Chester County Hospital
Lara cherishes those years not only for what she learned but also for the bond she created with the nurses around her.
As the only “brown-skinned RN [registered nurse],” as she put it, Lara was not only mistaken for a cleaner on more than occasion by patients but also felt the need to prove herself at first to new colleagues.
“It shouldn’t be that way, but I think it happens unconsciously in our society,” she said.
However, that quickly wore off as the work piled up.
“We would go through all those busy days and the turmoil, losing patients, working together,” said Lara, “and that overpowered everything.”
She related bonding experience to that of a sports team full of diverse faces and backgrounds all working towards a common goal.
In Lara’s case, it was the patient’s well being.
“We became a family because, in order to make it through the shift, we had to help each other to help our patients,” she said.
But still, in one of those early years at Chester County Hospital, Lara almost gave up her dream after a traumatic experience.
One night while she was on, a family member called to say her brother, Michael, had been rushed to the emergency room at Chester County Hospital. When she got to the ER, he was undergoing cardiac arrest.
At 26, Michael died a sudden death due to complications resulting from cardiomyopathy.
Lara’s initial reaction to her brother’s death was doubt.
“I don’t know if I want to be a nurse. I don’t know if I can do this,” she remembered saying.
She also struggled to grieve at the moment given that she had patients of her own while on her shift.
The event proved to be a turning point in Lara’s career. She went back to school again for her master’s degree in family practice and a psychology certification.
Her dive into family practice came from a desire to improve the lives of members of her community. Her brother had been a mechanic without any insurance when he died.
“We have to do better,” she said.
As she learned more about her community, mental health stuck out as a major issue without many resources.
“Mental health in general, there’s a shortage. But you can not find a Spanish-speaking provider for months,” said Lara.
To help the shortage, she started her own company providing independent contracting and services to patients, and also went back to school for her doctorate.
The focus of her research was integrating a Spanish-speaking psychiatric nurse practitioner within a primary care office.
“I basically created that position for myself at one of the UPenn offices in Kennett Square,” said Lara.
It was to prove that the service, when provided, would improve outcomes for patients. The work has been her project for the past couple of years and has turned into a position serving the community at La Comunidad Hispana in southern Chester County.
Last week, she started telepsyche services amid the COVID-19 shut down after the initial start date of March 1 was pushed back.
Speaking of coronavirus, its pandemic has flipped the table on how nurses are viewed in society, especially since Lara entered the field.
Back when she started, they weren’t respected, but now are seen as heroes on the front line.
As president of the Philadelphia chapter of the National Association of Hispanic Nurses (NAHN), Lara is in constant contact with nurses in the middle of the chaos.
The stories she’s heard are similar to those reported around the world. Much like she had to contain her emotions when her brother died years ago, nurses today are dealing with an overload of death and little time to cope.
Combine that with a society that’s shut down and the isolation of a new normal that’s virtual, and the psychological trauma caused by COVID-19 will last much longer than the virus itself.
“It’s just overwhelming,” said Lara.
In response, NAHN has stressed the creation of both a wellness committee and relief fund to support nurses financially and emotionally.
Before coronavirus, Lara also spent as much time as she could going to schools to promote nursing and be a mentor for as many young people as possible.
A big part of the reason she can’t believe she achieved her dream is that she didn’t have a mentor as an up-and-coming Latina nurse. When going to college, she couldn’t even remember another Latina who had a degree.
“I swam my whole way through hitting barriers because I didn’t know,” said Lara.
Regardless, she’s proud and honored to be where she is, and can now be the insight she never had for others.