This year, National Nurses Week (May 6-12) comes in the midst of a worldwide pandemic. As most of the population waits out COVID-19 at home, nurses are running into hospitals, homes and other settings to provide crucially-needed care and help individuals directly impacted by the virus. For patients battling COVID-19, nurses are some of the only familiar faces they see as they fight the virus, isolated from their families. And while the vital role of nurses has taken on greater prominence in light of the current health crisis, their special connection to patients has been the foundation of modern health care for decades.
Nurses are present for some of the most poignant moments of a person’s life. From having a child or recovering after a major surgery to confronting a chronic illness or death, they become part of a patient’s life. Many patients become dependent on nurses for everything that makes up their regular day. On top of performing their jobs, nurses learn the names of patients’ families, what foods they like best and what they like to watch on TV. On many occasions, nurses have the opportunity to celebrate healing and recovery. But they also hold hands and look into the eyes of patients who are forced to accept dark realities.
The direct and sustained contact that nurses have with their patients allows them to get to know their patients at a profoundly deep level. Nurses join their patients’ journey through grief and trauma, and they often know their patients’ stories better than anyone else involved in their care plan. While these strong relationships help inform and improve care, it can also bring heavy emotional weight.
I spent nearly 10 years of my career directly providing health care. During that time, I served individuals from all walks of life in different ways, including caring for them in their homes, senior care facilities and clinical settings. What I have learned is that caring for patients takes highly technical skills, including the ability to support a patient suffering from respiratory or cardiac arrest. It also takes a host of other skills, one of the most important being sustained attention on our patients. This attention results in early identification of potential physical and mental health declines. Paying attention and listening also provides additional benefits, including addressing social isolation by helping fill a patient’s need for human connection.
During my time working with the Medicaid population, many of the people I cared for faced challenges that others are just beginning to experience with COVID-19. For some, isolation, food scarcity and a lack of basic needs like running water are a daily battle even outside of a pandemic. And for many of these individuals, nurses are often the only people they interact with during their week. As a result of their sustained engagement, nurses quickly become a confidant and provide emotional support for people, including the most underserved, at-risk populations, some of whom have no one else to share their burdens.
Nurses fill a variety of needs in their roles, making their adaptability instrumental in a well-functioning care system. Even during my time caring for patients, we experienced frequent changes in technology systems and processes. These disruptions are added on top of sudden patient needs and bedside engagement, which adds to a nurse’s already full plate. Now that I have stepped into a legal role, I can confirm how these changes — no matter how small they may seem — directly impact their daily work. It is critical that leaders focus on ways we can ease the lives of those whose attention should remain on patients.
I want to express my deepest gratitude to all of the nurses serving patients across the globe. Being a nurse is often physically demanding and almost always emotionally taxing. Now, we are seeing you face those challenges at an unprecedented level. You are our heroes. Last, I want to add a special appreciation to the nurses serving the vulnerable Medicaid population: you are the face and voice offering hope, care, and respite. Thank you, and we have your back.