Della Graham stands out in the nursing crowd. And it’s not just because of the traditional white uniform and nurse’s cap she wears while on duty amid a sea of colorful scrubs.
She is a distinct presence at the Queen’s Medical Center because of personal traits: compassion for the ailing, dedication to the profession and attention to the healing journey of her patients.
Colleagues say the 65-year-old Makakilo resident, who possesses a gentle spirit and wisdom that transcends medical knowledge, is the epitome of a caring, professional nurse.
"She’s sort of the Maya Angelou of our unit," said Queen’s nursing manager Nicole Akana. "She gives us good insight. She’s very wise in the words she chooses; she’s nonjudgmental. She’s sort of the go-to person for new nurses clinically and also acts as a mother, providing guidance in life situations."
The semiretired RN said she long knew she wanted to be a nurse because she loved taking care of people and making them happy. But in the 1960s, that didn’t always come easy.
The New Jersey native attended Harlem Hospital School of Nursing in New York City right out of high school in 1966. The school was founded in 1923 to train African-American nurses because other institutions refused to accept them.
"There’s no easy job in nursing. It’s demanding 24/7 on your spirit, emotions and physical body. You have no idea what you’re going to come across (each day)."
Graham has been working as a nurse since 1969.
"There was a lot of racism. Many times I was the only black RN in the hospital," Graham said. "It wasn’t easy all the time. It was just as my instructors told me it would be. As an African-American nurse, you had to be better than most people. You had to work harder in order to be accepted and that stayed with me."
Graham worked in medical-surgical units and psychiatric nursing across the country, and when she would burn out in one area, she’d go to the next, most recently obstetrics.
"There’s no easy job in nursing," she said. "It’s demanding 24/7 on your spirit, emotions and physical body. You have no idea what you’re going to come across (each day). You leave that job and you’re so tired and worn out and think nobody really cares. You’re torn constantly back and forth between ‘Where do I give my attention? Who needs it the most?’ It can be very overwhelming."
After 43 years in the high-stress occupation, often dealing with life-and-death situations, Graham retired from Queen’s in 2012 "to live."
But she quickly found herself back in the field as a traveling nurse, helping financially support her 87-year-old mother who lives in New Jersey. She did the same when she moved to Hawaii from Atlanta in 2000 to support her eldest daughter, Brandie, who was studying nursing at Hawaii Pacific University.
"I wanted to help her get out of her last year of nursing, so I dropped everything to come here and help her financially (so she could concentrate on school)," said Graham, a single mother of four grown children, three of whom are in the medical field.
Being a single mom, she said, has helped her in the profession since she learned to multi-task and how to read patients better.
"It is a nurse’s duty as a front-line assessor (to know what’s going on with patients). She is the patient’s advocate," Graham said. "That patient is vulnerable. You’ve got to be able to know and assess that and be able to get the right people to her. Nurses are the ones who are with them all the time. If I fall down on that job then you don’t get what you need."
Graham’s formal work attire initially provoked wisecracks from co-workers.
"They laughed in the beginning, and I had jokes thrown at me. I was afraid to wear my cap. I knew I was going to be laughed at, and I was going to have some pressure put on me, but I wore it anyway," she said. "And eventually they got used to it."
Ironically, the white uniform and cap that she has worn for decades with dignity also puts patients at ease, she said.
"When I’m in uniform it brings me back to why I’m here. It reminds me when I forget that this is why you’re here. You’re not here for yourself," she said. "Patients react differently when they see me in white and with my cap on."
When she’s not aiding patients, Graham spends time performing, in recent years acting in the local production of "A Raisin in the Sun." She also travels and does ministry work in places as far away as Africa.
Since a total knee replacement in 2012, Graham has been working as an on-call nurse at Queen’s. She said she prays for the strength to be of service to her patients.
"You have to leave everything outside the front door of the hospital. The way I do that is I pray and ask the Lord to help me get through the night," she said. "To be a blessing to whomever I’m touching and be blessed and to cover me and my patients. He’s never failed. He not only protects me and my patients, he actually gives me the physical strength."