Get to Know a Nurse: RN Helen Sandiford-Ayers, An Unexpected Labor of LoveJanuary 16, 2020
Helen Sandiford-Ayers has been a nurse for decades and still loves her job. Currently she works at North Shore Medical Center. Over the years, Sandiford-Ayers has worked at different hospitals and departments from post-partum to cardiac and telemetry. She admits that when she was a young adult, she had reservations about a career in nursing because of one fear—the sight of blood. This fear stems from a childhood health problem. Despite this potential roadblock nearly 40 years ago, Sandiford-Ayers applied for a civil service nursing program in Trinidad, her native homeland. To her surprise, she was accepted.
“Nursing wasn’t my first choice, even though as a child I loved experimenting with herbs and using them to heal the ailments of family and friends,” said Sandiford-Ayers. “But when the opportunity came, I chose nursing because I needed a good job. I later realized that I was making a real impact.”
During nursing school, teachers discovered Sandiford-Ayers was a natural. She was a quick study and excelled. Her peers looked up to her and chose her as their class president. This is when Sandiford-Ayers realized she had the potential to be an effective leader. She decided to put those leadership skills to good use when she started her nursing career by joining a union.
“Most of my career I’ve been in a union, in Trinidad, New York and in Florida,” said Sandiford-Ayers. “I’ve seen firsthand the power working people have when they unite.”
Sandiford-Ayers participated in her first strike in Trinidad. She and her colleagues decided it was the only way to get hospital management to hear their pleas to give them the supplies and equipment they needed to provide quality care to their patients. The strike was a success! Along with medical supplies and equipment, the nurses also received a wage increase. Years later in New York, similar workplace issues prompted Sandiford-Ayers to take action again.
“It was a similar situation in New York, short staffing, poor working conditions and a lack of supplies,” recalled Sandiford-Ayers. “We went on strike for a few days and got what we wanted. It’s clear to me that unity is power.”
With deep roots in labor, it seems fitting that Sandiford-Ayers is now a delegate with 1199SEIU. As a member leader, she encourages her colleagues to come to union meetings and stand together so they can advocate for themselves and their patients. Sandiford-Ayers believes she is better prepared to do this job after participating in a recent 1199SEIU pilot program that taught her and other members how to organize their coworkers and build power.
“I really enjoyed the 1199SEIU pilot program. It was very informative and empowering,” said Sandiford-Ayers. “I can now speak with authority. I feel I grew professionally and personally.”
You might think that after decades of putting in long hours working as a nurse and raising two children on her own, Sandiford-Ayers would want to retire so she could have more time to spend with her grandchildren and enjoy her favorite pastimes--fishing and vacationing on cruises. But retirement is not part of her immediate plan because she really enjoys being a nurse.
“I wouldn’t change this work for nothing,” said Sandiford-Ayers. “I get great satisfaction being a nurse and seeing that my patients and their families are happy about the care they got. It’s so wonderful to see the impact we have as caregivers.”