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Backlash won’t stop Birgit Umaigba from advocating for more equity and diversity in health care

Determined to make Canada collect and publish race-based data in health care

By Laura Eggertson
April 8, 2024
Ian Patterson
“I always liked what the nurse did,” Birgit Umaigba says. “I like the fact I can go into a patient’s room and change the environment — make them clean — give them some light and life throughout the 12 hours of my shift. That gives me a lot of satisfaction.”

In a hierarchical health-care culture that expects nurses to follow orders and support the status quo, Birgit Umaigba stands out as an unapologetic advocate.

The Nigerian-born registered nurse gained a large following of more than 70,000 people on Twitter — now X — at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, when she highlighted the lack of personal protective equipment and advocated for paid sick days for nurses and other health-care workers.

She won awards for her leadership, including Chatelaine magazine’s 2022 Doris Anderson Award for “elevating the voices of Canadian nurses on the frontlines of pandemic care.”

When Umaigba drew attention on her social media posts to the disproportionate number of racialized patients in intensive care units with COVID and called out racism in health care, however, her comments sparked a backlash.

Her posts have cost her jobs, friendships and leadership opportunities, she says.

“I advocated for nurses. I still do,” Umaigba says. “But my advocacy has to be tailored to White men for me to be liked. For me to be accepted.”

Online threats

Umaigba, a clinical instructor and part-time professor at Centennial College and an agency nurse in the Greater Toronto Area, does not disclose her exact address or the hospitals where she works because of the online threats and racism she has encountered.

Those threats have not stopped her from advocating for more diversity in nursing and throughout health care, nor have they stifled her determination to highlight the links between a lack of diversity and patient care.

“Every single time I am assigned a Black patient, I pay attention to what kind of care they are receiving,” she says. “I always tell people, ‘There’s no research out there saying White people are dying in a disproportionate manner because of the care they receive from Black people. But there is so much research out there about how Black people are dying because of the care they get from White people.”

Race-based research is an area of particular focus for Umaigba, who earned her bachelor of science in nursing from York University and Seneca College’s former collaborative program. She also holds a master’s degree in education from York and is pursuing her PhD from Queen’s University.

Canada’s lack of race-based data means that there is no ability to gauge the impact of systemic racism on health or social equity, she says. She has experienced the impact of that lack of data both as a nurse and as a patient.

Need race-based data

“We can’t track anything,” she says. “I had two miscarriages that, from my experience,  were solely based on the lack of insight into the birth experiences of Black women. But there’s no data to track what happened, so there will never be tailored solutions.”

“We can’t address what we can’t name.”

Umaigba is determined to help remedy the lack of data. Her PhD thesis will examine the birthing experiences of Black women in Canada.

Many of Canada’s health-care institutions and colleges and universities have “beautiful inclusion statements,” Umaigba says. Few, however, have meaningful representation and inclusion in their higher echelons, including boards of directors, she says.

Although she enjoys being a bedside nurse, particularly when her presence helps Black patients feel more comfortable, Umaigba would also like the opportunity to take on a leadership or supervisory role at a hospital. But she does not want to be a token hire.

Black, Indigenous and racialized nurses are not well represented in specialty fields because they are not encouraged to pursue that type of nursing, she says.

“That boils down to the type of leadership in nursing, which is generally White,” Umaigba says.

Currently, she feels well supported by the leadership team where she is working, Umaigba recently posted.

“I’ve been working with one of the best managers in my entire career. I feel heard, seen and valued. She has managed to build a diverse team and continues to foster a positive work environment where the contributions of employees are acknowledged,” Umaigba wrote.

That support played into her recent decision to turn down a nursing leadership position where she would have been the only Black person on the team, she says.

“Don’t tell me there’s inclusion or belonging when I’m the only person here,” she says. “I was tired of being the only Black person on a team. I refuse to be a token.”

Speaks freely

Working as an agency nurse and taking short-term contracts have given Umaigba the freedom to speak freely and pursue her advocacy agenda, something she could not do from a full-time hospital job, she says.

Even her email signature was too controversial for one hospital supervisor, Umaigba says. The supervisor told her to delete her description of herself as a “health equity advocate.”

Still, Umaigba is not backing down. She believes that until Canada collects and publishes race-based data, particularly in the health-care system, and until Black, Indigenous and racialized nurses have safe ways to report the way racism affects them, nothing will change.

In the meantime, she draws hope from nurses who do speak out and from the allies who stand with them.

One of those allies is a doctor colleague who recently took a day off to accompany and support Umaigba when she launched a grievance about the suboptimal care she received at hospital emergency departments during her miscarriages.

“I’ve gotten a lot of support and recognition and awards, and I’ve also had doors opened in other ways,” Umaigba says. “I have some fantastic colleagues who are supportive and very patient.”

That support keeps her going — along with the love of her husband, sister, nephew  and 12-year-old daughter, with whom she likes to travel and play board games when she is not working or studying.

Eliminate racism

Her daughter is among the reasons Umaigba keeps pushing for a more just and equitable society, particularly within health care. She recently co-wrote an editorial asking the federal government to pass the Canada Disability Benefit, citing the link between chronic disability and income insecurity.

“We can end disability poverty and end the unnecessary suffering of so many people with disabilities,” Umaigba urged.

Umaigba wants her daughter to grow up in a society that values everyone, whether they are patients or health-care providers. She is driven by the same compassion and desire to help that brought her into nursing when, as an 11-year-old girl, she watched a nurse care for her dying best friend.

“I always liked what the nurse did,” Umaigba says. “I like the fact I can go into a patient’s room and change the environment — make them clean — give them some light and life throughout the 12 hours of my shift. That gives me a lot of satisfaction.”

She will be even more satisfied when she is convinced that all patients will get the same excellent care and when Black, Indigenous, and racialized nurses are well represented in all the corridors of power in health-care institutions and beyond.

“The nursing profession is a beautiful profession, if only we are able to eliminate racism in its entirety,” Umaigba says.

Laura Eggertson is a freelance journalist based in Wolfville, N.S.