It’s taken a pandemic to draw our attention to how important nurses are to the healthcare system.
Nurses have traditionally gone about their business with quiet efficiency, letting people keep their mental image of white-clad angels of mercy placing a comforting hand on a fevered brow instead of seeing them as the highly skilled and incredibly hardworking professionals they are.
COVID-19 has brought us a new image of a nurse. Forget the starched white, or the more modern pastel scrubs. Nurses on the front lines wear space-age face shields and protective clothing that might as well be superhero capes and headgear. They have become the heroes of the healthcare system, without question.
It is about time.
There have been occasions over the past couple of decades when a nurse was viewed as little more than a financial unit. When the government announced another hospital funding cut, it usually translated into how many nurses had to be laid off to balance the books. The number of fulltime nursing positions dwindled to the point where recent grads expected to have to cobble together two or three part-time positions into something resembling fulltime work, or go to the States.
Hospitals and other healthcare facilities depended on agency nurses, overtime and less qualified personnel to cover staffing gaps. Nursing positions went unfilled and many facilities operated with a chronic staff shortage. This was pretty much the norm for all levels of nursing, from registered nurses right on down the line, until COVID-19 hit.
All of a sudden, it dawned on decision makers that the people primarily responsible for not only keeping alive those stricken with the disease, but for preventing others, including staff, from becoming ill, were nurses.
Serving on the front lines in any battle comes with personal risks, and nurses fighting COVID-19 are no different. They are well aware that a substantial proportion of people who have contracted the disease are healthcare workers. Every shift brings the risk of exposure to the potentially deadly virus.
In some communities, retired nurses have returned to work despite the risk. Caring for others no matter how challenging the circumstances is not what nurses do, it is who they are.
And make no mistake, the situation in our healthcare facilities, be they hospitals, clinics or nursing homes, are challenging. The reality of battling a highly contagious virus involves doing many things differently. The amount of personal protective gear that has to be worn is mind-boggling. Even more so are the protocols that must be followed. Are our nurses up to the task? Of course they are.
This is National Nursing Week – May 11-17. It always occurs from the Monday to the Sunday of Florence Nightingale’s birthday, May 12. The theme this year is Nurses: A Voice to Lead — Nursing the World to Health.
The theme couldn’t be more appropriate.
Florence Nightengale, the “lady with the lamp,” was born into a wealthy British family on May 12, 1820. She came into prominence during the Crimean War, giving nursing a favourable reputation. She laid the foundation of professional nursing with the establishment of the first secular nursing school in the world, at St. Thomas’ Hospital in London, England.
During the Crimean War, Nightengale focused on changing the lack of hygiene that resulted in mass infections and many deaths. Such measures as hand washing cut the death rate from 42 per cent to two per cent in the war hospital where she worked.
We have COVID-19 – Nightengale battled typhus, typhoid, cholera and dysentery, combined with overcrowding, not to mention backed-up sewers and lack of ventilation. She became convinced that poor nutrition and even worse sanitation killed more soldiers than wounds did, and continued to advocate for improvements to sanitation during peacetime.
Her influence helped transform hospitals from places of last resort, where straw was placed on the floors to soak up blood, to clean, modern health-care facilities. Nightengale was the health-care superhero of her time.
This year, it is more important than ever to honour the women and men who carry on Nightengale’s tradition – superheroes all.