We recently announced the 2021 recipients of the BlueCross Power of We Scholarship, which recognizes outstanding students working to promote equity in the health care field.
This story is part of a series profiling each of this year’s six winners.
To treat someone’s body, you have to understand their life. In America, we often think of a holistic approach to health care as a luxury, rather than a necessity. But knowing how someone lives can make all the difference.
“In nursing school, we’re learning that some blood pressure medications won’t work for certain ethnicities,” says Veronica Bernaba. “Yet often, providers are unaware of a patient’s ethnic background — how they eat, how they live. They don’t understand that a patient can’t take their medication properly because the directions on the label are in English and they only speak Spanish. But understanding is important. We have to remember, every day, that the person we’re taking care of is a human being, not a diagnosis or disease.”
“Growing up, I saw how health disparities affected even the most educated people in our community,” she says. “I knew one man with type II diabetes who lost his eyesight, developed diabetic neuropathy and eventually passed away. I knew another who died at age 50 from pancreatic cancer. It just showed me: You can have a doctorate in engineering and still know nothing about your health. Minority communities need more representation so patients can learn the symptoms of chronic illnesses. That’s what I hope to offer in my future practice.”
The importance of community
Veronica’s sense of community was instilled in her early. Her family immigrated to Nashville from Alexandria, Egypt, when she was only a few months old.
She grew up surrounded by people of all backgrounds — Greeks, Egyptians, African-Americans, Hispanics — which gave her a global perspective from a young age.
“Have you ever seen My Big Fat Greek Wedding?” she asks, laughing. “It sounds silly, but it’s one of the few Hollywood movies that portrays Mediterranean people in the perfect light. We’re big on family. We’re big on culture, traditions and loving God. And we’re big on taking care of our neighbors.”
That focus on family and culture is one reason many people from North Africa settle in the South, says Veronica. It grounds her no matter what she does — and she’s done a lot. So far, Veronica has a biology degree from Lipscomb University, and she’s participated in cancer research at Sarah Cannon, the Cancer Institute of HCA Healthcare. She’s currently on track to finish her bachelor of science at Belmont University, after which she looks forward to becoming a health care provider.
Through it all, she still finds time to volunteer at Siloam Family Health Center. It’s the place that first showed her there are providers who care for immigrants, refugees, low-income populations and everyone in between, right in her backyard.
“Siloam is a non-profit clinic that doesn’t turn anyone away,” she says. “They celebrate the differences in our community, which you can see in the flags on the clinic walls that symbolize where each patient is from. Siloam is where I learned just how much each health care interaction can mean in a patient’s life. ”
As an interpreter — Veronica speaks a little bit of Spanish and French, but she’s fluent in Arabic and English — she gets to see that difference on every patient’s face.
“I can see the impact medical interpreters have on the patient-provider relationship,” she says. “You can’t understand how a patient feels if you can’t see their nonverbal cues. You can’t hear them explain, in their own words, why they prepare a special meal on Sundays that doesn’t line up with their care plan. I can talk to people about their beliefs and their needs because I come from the same community they do.”
The power of connection is something Veronica never underestimates. She’s experienced it in Nashville, but also on mission trips to Mexico, Peru and Nicaragua. On one trip, she visited an orphanage where kids from abusive families were given a second chance at life.
“That trip changed me,” she says. “In the U.S. we have problems, but it’s nothing compared to people who live in homes with mud walls and sleep on the ground. We have the resources, but they don’t get distributed equally. As a provider, I can change that, starting just by being there.
I know there are kids who will see me and think, ‘Wow, I don’t see a lot of nurses that look like her: olive skin, dark hair, dark brows. If she can be a nurse, maybe I can too.’ That’s powerful.”
Forging her path
While Veronica’s path is very clear, it’s not without obstacles, especially when it comes to funding her education. Because she already holds a bachelor’s degree, traditional scholarships aren’t open to her.
“I was worried, but I knew that God was going to find a way,” she says. “I didn’t come this far to not push through. The BlueCross Power of We Scholarship lets me know that I can achieve my dream without worrying if I’ll make it to the end.”
In addition to financial support, Veronica draws power from the mission of the scholarship: to help minority students get the education they need to change the future.
“Through this scholarship, we get to be the voices of our unheard immigrant families and all the communities that fall through the cracks,” she says. “We can let them know they don’t have to feel marginalized, unheard or unnoticed. I still have a long way to go, but I’m blessed to be on this journey. And I’m blessed to be doing it here at home. Nashville made me who I am, and now I get to take care of the people of Nashville. In that way, I’m already living my dream.”
About the BlueCross Power of We Scholarship
- Each year, the BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee Foundation awards $10,000 scholarships to minority students pursuing degrees in health care.
- Recipients are chosen in collaboration with the National Association of Health Services Executives (NAHSE) – Memphis Chapter.
- The goal of these scholarships is to help reduce health disparities by improving diversity in the state’s health care workforce and combating systemic racism and injustice.
- Since 2013, the foundation has awarded $285,000 to students leading the charge.
- This year, the BlueCross Foundation awarded 6 scholarships to students across the state.
For more information, see BCBSTnews.com/scholarship.