Every year, we celebrate National Nurses Week between May 6, which is National Nurses Day, and May 12, which happens to be Florence Nightingale’s birthday. If you haven’t picked up a specialty journal or public newspaper in the past few months, you may not know that nursing has made it to the headlines:
Some of us might argue that any press is better than none, and others might say it’s about time that the real story about nurses and nursing become better known. While I believe a little in both perspectives, the real reason I’m glad to see them today is that they depict a much richer, more valid, and more robust story about who and what nurses are and how they serve society.
A recent article in The New York Times stated, “A Shrinking Band of Southern Nurses, Neck Deep in Another Covid Wave.” This news story brings into national view the importance of small, nonprofit safety-net hospitals and the experience of the nurses who work there. Told without romanticizing nurses’ dedication or pointing out their long-suffering compassionate nature, this article tells of the real challenges faced by nurses who want to do good for their communities but are faced with persistent shortages, significant illnesses that could have been avoided, and politically motivated, bureaucratic financial decisions. However, it also tells of the creative problem solving demonstrated by these nurses as they try to meet patient needs and the compassion they provide to their colleagues as they continue, yet another day, to address the needs of many with fewer and fewer resources.
Look at the first three headlines: together, these depict a professional field dedicated to meeting the conditions of its social contract—to provide high-quality patient care—and awash with opportunities for outstanding career growth, and at the same time at risk of losing some of its critical workforce due to unrelenting stress in the workplace. What does this say about nursing? Never has there been such opportunity, but never has the opportunity promised so little.
A beautiful story in March in The New York Times, “Confronting Grief, With Margaret Atwood, in ‘The Nurse Antigone,’” which talks about regular nurses participating with Margaret Atwood in the reading of the play Antigone, provides me with hope and vision. In this rendition, Atwood will play the blind prophet Theophanes and the nurses will be part of the Greek chorus. This story of Antigone’s determination to bury her brother, who died in battle, despite a law forbidding the burial of traitors mirrors the challenges nurses face by attending to those in need despite enormous challenges in acquiring resources needed to provide care, including sufficient time. An ethicist quoted in the article remarks that Antigone’s triumph over Creon’s prohibitions provides an apt mirror of the moral injury with which nurses cope, neither romanticizing their decision nor despairing at their deplorable conditions.
The final headline in the middle of the pack heralds nurses’ awakening to their economic power. The COVID-19 pandemic didn’t create the traveling nurse sector of our profession, but it certainly accelerated its growth across the country. Individual remuneration soared, leaving many nurses with the dilemma to remain as a loyal worker in a long-served institution or move on for financial gain. Hospitals too faced the challenge of differential staff compensation, with highly paid traveling nurse staff working next to more modestly paid existing staff. Fortunately, the perversity of this economic structure has led to hospitals and clinics improving staff nurse compensation, attending to their work conditions, and stabilizing the staffing complement.
As we celebrate National Nurses Week this year, please join me in recognizing the vibrant, rich picture of our profession. We are not unbuffered by these challenging times, and as a profession, we are responding in a way that serves our patients while preserving our profession. Accepting new models of care, innovative career trajectories, and an expanded understanding of how to create compassionate workplaces promises a future in which all nurses can work to the top of their licenses. Let us know how we can help you do this, too!
Patricia Flatley Brennan, RN, PhDDirector, National Library of Medicine
Dr. Brennan is the Director of the NIH National Library of Medicine, a leader in biomedical informatics and computational health data science research and the world’s largest biomedical library. Under her leadership, NLM has grown its intramural and extramural research enterprise, extended stakeholders’ access to credible and reliable health information, and acquired and preserved biomedical literature using cutting-edge digital research and outreach. Read more about Dr. Brennan.