Imagine you are a brilliant little Black girl and your Mama is wanting you to go to an upper echelon private school. Mostly white. Latanja’s Mama was at the ironing board making sure her uniform looked just right. No wrinkles allowed. She checked Latanja’s braids one more time, no nappy strays allowed. Latanja quickly donned the pinafore before getting hearing her mother call out “Hurry up now, ya hear? Early is on time, Latanja. On time is late.” Latanja was just finishing up polishing her shoes. She quickly finished and her Mama loaded her up into the old jalopy. Dr. Latanja Divens, PhD, DNP, APRN, FNP-BC remembered that day as if was yesterday. When she got to school, she was placed in the third level group of students for the grade. The low group. Her mother was not satisfied with that. She went marching to the principle to complain. “This little girl could read by age three. She’s way smarter than that. You put her there because of the color of her skin.” After looking at the child’s previous academic record, reluctantly, the principal moved her to group two. Not only did Latanja excel over all the other students in that group, she aced all of her work, including some from level one.
In college, Latanja continued to demonstrate her academic prowess, earning her Bachelor of Science in Biology from Xavier University of Louisiana in 1996 and a second Bachelor’s of Science in Nursing from Our Lady of Holy Cross College in 2001. But she wasn’t done with school yet. She loved to learn and she was good at it. She nursed patients in the areas of family practice, nephrology, and gastroenterology. She even worked with the Veterans Administration caring for Vietnam and Afghanistan war veterans. In 2007, she completed her Master of Science in Nursing. But she wasn’t done, she wanted more. She completed her Doctor of Nursing Practice in 2012 from Loyola University New Orleans working as a Family Nurse Practitioner. Her passion lay in caring for underserved patients with chronic diseases.
But she just couldn’t turn her brain off. There was so much more to learn. More to do. Back to school. She wanted to be involved in research. In 2018 she completed her second doctorate, PhD in Nursing Education from William Carey University. She maintained her board certification by the American Nurses Credentialing Center as a Primary Care Family Nurse Practitioner throughout her career, continuing to practice actively. Dr. Divens served as an Assistant Professor of Clinical Nursing in both the undergraduate and graduate nursing programs at Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center, New Orleans. She was the program coordinator for the Adult-Gerontology Primary Care Nurse Practitioner program. She was sought out for her grant writing abilities, having single handedly writing for over 1.5 million in federal grant funding.
However, that is not what made Dr. Latanja Divens a Belle of Steel. Several years ago she noticed that she was experiencing numbness and tingling in her fingers and toes. Sometimes she had trouble with balance. Being a healthcare provider, she sought medical journals and expert consultations from physicians. Numerous health care providers could simply not figure it out. But Latanja did. She finally found a neurologist to perform the right test. Being summoned to his office, she already knew it was not going to be good news. He told her she had a progressive form of multiple sclerosis (MS). For an instant, her heart sank. But her mind went into over drive. Knowing what she knew as a medical professional, she felt a pit in her stomach and visually projected being in a bed and on a ventilator. It made her nauseous and want to vomit. Not her. Not now. And in a Black woman? MS is a disease of white women.
Driving herself home, she prepared to tell her husband. “What I am going to do? I teach for a major university? I care for patients?” He simply said, “What you always do, Latanja. Pick yourself up, dust off after you cry a bit. And conquer it day by day. Use that head of yours.” Her husband was right. But she summoned her strength from somewhere else too. Her faith. Even though she was mad at God at the moment for this train-wreck of a diagnosis, she went to church to talk to her pastor. He basically repeated what her husband had told her. Dr. Latanja Given was not a person to give up. Ever. God had other plans for her.
Since that time, Latanja has struggled, but she wouldn’t give up. Bit by bit her body faught her. With twitching and cramps, pain that would disable anyone. It even affected the one thing she loved to do, speak. Speak to teach. Speak to make people laugh. Speak to motivate. Her voice was craggy but she carried on. Nothing would stop her from doing what she loved, teaching.
“I’ve been through some very dark days,” she said from behind her desk. Struggling she reached over to get her hand over the special large mouse to direct her computer. She was mentoring a fellow faculty to publish. “I know I look awkward. But, I won’t let it get me. There’s got to be a purpose in all this. A reason.” Until recently, Dr. Divens delivered moving motivational speeches at churches and public gatherings about MS in African Americans. She revealed that many times MS is mis-diagnosed for years in the African American population, as was in her case. At the conclusion of one of her presentations, a young Black female approached her. She revealed how thankful she was to have met her and heard her story, as she was recently diagnosed. It was another face, facing the same devastating diagnosis. They continue to be friends to this day.
Dr. Divens was often found wheeling around the halls of LSU Health Sciences Center, New Orleans. Continuing to mentor not only students, but fellow faculty. Everyone from students, to friends, to faculty considered her family. She chaired the curriculum committee and served as a programmatic and grant reviewer. Her curriculum vitae remains chocker-block full of her awards, accomplishments, publications and presentations from around the country. But all of that is not what made Dr. Divens a Belle of Steel. It was her kind heart, her soaring spirit, her infectious laugh, her dry wit. But most of all, it was her undeniable grit. On any given day, she never knew what her body was going to throw at her. Would she seize? Would she end up on the floor? Would she hurt? Would her shakes make others uncomfortable? But ever determined, she would never give in. Not as long as her heart and brain continued to tick.
Early in morning on February 14th, Valentines Day, 2022, at age 47, Latanja’s heart played that final beat. She died in her sleep. That weekend, she had met with her doctoral student, finished up an article, planned for the week, and went to church with her husband. Little did she know, on that day, God had other plans for her. He was calling her home. The halls at LSU on that Monday seemed empty. Students and faculty bereft. A spirit, larger than life was suddenly taken from them. Many were stunned and not sure what to say or do. During a session to debrief their profound loss, students and faculty poured out their grief and memories of her. They talked about her humor, her faith, her passion for teaching. How they would never forget how she individually touched so many. For her life’s work, her profound resilience, AgeView Press is proud, humbled, and honored to name Dr. Latanja Divens Belle of Steel # 17.