Reflections: The Category of Us

Debbi Simmons Harris, M.A., M.S., GCAS-Creative Writing/Narrative Medicine

Nurse X is young and tall. A mop of untidy brown hair frames her angular face, and I practically need to hyperextend my neck to look her in the eye. Kids like mine, the ones with extensive, expansive, unbelievable medical histories, need lots of orientation. They’re tricky, and the only way to make accurate assessments is to learn as much as possible from the parents. It is Nurse X’s first job. She’s been a nurse for 20 minutes, and she’s just as many years my junior. But here I am, attempting to go over essential parts of Josh’s medical history, the nuances of his behaviors that must inform his nursing assessments, and ways to keep him content. But she doesn’t care about any of that.

“Listen,” she says, with the commanding and familiar air of putting me in my place, “I’m the nurse here, and you’re just the mom.”

There it is again, the divine hierarchy nature intended.

I call the agency to express concern—this sort of attitude among home care nurses almost always ends in an unplanned hospitalization. The agency defends Nurse X’s indiscretion. Interruption in care—and reimbursement dollars—is sometimes a far greater evil than the skewed dynamic of experiencing racism in one’s own home.

 “She’s from a small town, and she’s not used to people like you,” the agency says.

“Like us? Suburbanites?”


“People with advanced degrees?”

“Um, no.”

“Military families?”

“Black people. She’s just not used to being around Black people. It makes her uncomfortable.”

They ask that I be patient, teach her, allow her to allay any fears. But I am emotionally exhausted after years of varied versions of the same scenario. I’m kind of sick of it. And this is my house.

So, I decide that it’s simply too much to ask of me. Nurse X isn’t welcomed back.

The Category of Us reflects how a family learns to take life 20 minutes at a time, with an awkward kind of gratefulness that embraces every moment of calm and chaos therein. It is told as a juxtaposition of past and present, showing vignettes of an arduous but wondrously fulfilling journey. Our story is that of an African American family in the southern suburbs of the Twin Cities metropolitan area of Minnesota. It brings up difficult questions about implicit bias in health care, ableism, and racism—questions that most of us prefer to avoid.

We are part of a demographic that cares for children who are medically with a host of disabilities, coaxing them toward adulthood against all odds. Meanwhile, we face our mortality and the morbidities brought on by unrelenting stress and discrimination. This story reflects on a pregnancy that ends unexpectedly with a traumatic birth—a birth that continues to raise concerns about bias in the U.S. maternal and infant health care system and the subsequent, irreparable guilt that burdens far too many African American mothers. It shows the hurtful, often tragic, outcomes at the frightening intersection where racism meets ableism, with its adjacent nuances, and how that junction can lead to the undoing of countless families who do not have adequate support.

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