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Black History Month: Inspiring Us To Care for People

| Date Posted: 2/1/2023

Throughout Black History Month, we have asked members of the FirstHealth family to share more about an African American in history, their life or community who inspired them to pursue our core purpose - To Care for People. 


Dr. Sharon Nicholson Harrell, DDS, MPH, FAGD, CDE
Chief Diversity Officer and Dental Director


The African-American who inspired me "To Care for People" was my mother, Thelma Patterson Nicholson. Mom always cared about people. When she passed away in July 2018, person after person shared how she would always have an encouraging word to share with them.


She believed in writing handwritten notes to people to thank them. She told me that if I was in a bad mood, it was wrong for me to take it out on anyone else because it wasn't their fault. She admonished me that if I ever came into the office in a bad mood, I should go into the bathroom, get it together, and then emerge smiling.  Mom told me that you could say anything you needed to say, as long as you said it in a nice way.


In much of my work in diversity, equity, and inclusion, I often hear that if I say "I don't see color," then I am not acknowledging that person's uniqueness. However, mom taught me to always see the person first, and then their external characteristics second.


The principle of seeing the person first has always guided how I interact with people. I love my mother, and I miss her very much. But I find comfort in the fact that I still carry with me every day what she taught me, which was always “To Care for People”—long before it became FirstHealth's core purpose.


Jermaine Dalton, MHA, BSN, R.N., CMSRN
Administrative Director, Med Neuro Service Line at MRH


While he is not famous nor known to many, my grandfather, the Reverend Melvin Gwyn, Sr., is a key individual that has helped to shape and mold me into the person that I am today. My grandfather was a man that simply loved life, loved people, and loved the Lord.


He felt that his life's work was to care for his family and to give back to those within the community.  As an ordained Baptist minister and pastor, his way of giving back was to ensure that those around him felt heard, supported, and nurtured both naturally and spiritually. Grandpa never met a stranger, and he carried himself in a manner that allowed him to minister to all, no matter their race, gender or socioeconomic status.


As a child, I was taught to work hard; to love and respect people.  At an early age, it was known and understood within our house, that “everybody is somebody and we DO NOT look down on anybody/"


As children, we were taught that we should carry ourselves in a manner that demanded respect; but we were also to give the same respect that we wanted to receive from others.


One of my grandfather's favorite sayings was "son, never let anyone tell you who you are; you show them who you are.  Respect is something that you earn, so you treat others the way you want to be treated."


No, he wasn’t famous, and no he wasn’t someone that the entire world got to know, but to me, he was a role model, a mentor and a friend. He was the late Reverend Melvin Gwyn, Sr, my grandfather. 


Becky Carter, MSN, R.N., FACHE
President, Montgomery Memorial Hospital


About 10 years ago, while employed at another hospital system, I was convening a hospital quality committee meeting when the chairman of the board of that hospital interrupted to ask, 'Where are all of the men?' I must have looked puzzled because he went on to say, 'Why am I the only male at this table? I shouldn't be the only man on this committee.' I spoke a bit about how membership on the committee was determined based on position, competency, role, interest and expertise. Feeling uncomfortable for my colleagues around the table, I offered to discuss it further after the meeting.


I left that meeting wondering why it troubled this board chairman that the members of a hospital committee or, in fact even the leadership of a hospital would be predominantly female. Health care is provided by a predominantly female workforce. More women than men are graduating from medical schools, and nursing students are predominantly female. Most allied health fields are populated by more women than men. I wondered if this person's issue had more to do with his narrow notion of who deserves a seat at the board table. Did he believe that women didn't deserve the seats they occupied and that more seats should be reserved for men?


That experience causes me to think about people throughout history who have been denied, and in turn have fought for a seat at the proverbial table. This month, I think about African-American women and girls who defied the norms to assure representation for all people.


Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler was the first black woman admitted to and graduated from medical school in the mid-1800s. Bessie Coleman became the first African-American and female pilot in 1921. Claudette Colvin did not give up her seat to a white woman on a bus; she was 15 years old in 1955 and was arrested for her courage. Ruby Bridges, at 6 years old in 1960, was escorted into an all-white school in Louisiana to take her seat with white children who were receiving better quality education than their black neighbors. Shirley Chisholm, an African-American educator, was elected to a seat in Congress, serving seven terms from 1969 to 1983 and ran to be the Democratic nominee for president in the 1972 election. Dr. Mae Carol Jemison, strapped in a spacecraft in 1992 and became the first African-American woman to travel into space.


During Black History Month, I am reminded of these and so many more who dared to fight for fairness, the opportunity, for representation, for a seat at every table. As these remarkable black women took a stand for equal access, opportunity and equity, they made it possible for me and my colleagues to have a seat in the board room today. Those who have stood for what is right for black Americans, many at great personal risk, stood for what is right for all Americans. I am grateful.


Chaplain Beverly C. Jessup, DMin, FAPC
Clinical Director, Pastoral Care


FirstHealth’s core purpose is To Care for People. The outreach of Dr. Martin Luther King’s ministry and goal of social justice epitomizes how well we try to fulfill our core purpose. One of his most famous quotes was, “I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” Dr. King stood tall for justice, peace, and righteousness. A supreme guiding value for this ministry was the value of love. He was driven by this ethic of love because of his faith. He wanted to be known primarily as a person who was first in love. To Care for People here at FirstHealth means to be first in love, treating one another with dignity, value, and respect. His ethic of love no doubt arose from his study of scripture where our Lord said, “a new commandment I give to you that you love one another; as I have loved you.” (John 13:34 NKJV). While I fall mightily short of being first in love within the content of my character, Dr. King continues to inspire me toward this high calling.



Roberto Ortega
Food and Nutrition, MRH-Richmond


I grew up in Sanford, N.C., which had approximately a 65% white population. Throughout school, I was a class clown, and I gave teachers a really hard time. During high school, I was in honor classes and honestly there would not be more than three black students in those classes. In tenth grade, I had a black female teacher, Mrs. Hallman, who challenged me educationally.

She taught me about accountability and changed my whole mindset and views on my behavior, literally everything. She really was the first teacher to push me and showed me she really cared about my future. I stopped being a class clown and began to give all my teachers respect. My twenty-year high school reunion is this year, and she is one of the few teachers I can vividly remember. If l could see her today, I would definitely thank her for the gem she deposited into my spirit.

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