In the time of COVID-19, nurses and nursing are getting much more media attention than is typical. I see this as a very good thing. When I began a career as a nurse-writer I saw it as my mission—and yes, I used that word—to educate the public about what nurses really do, because we are so essential to patient care and yet so often unseen in portrayals of, or discussions about, health care in the U.S.
Nurses are much more in the public eye right now because the sickest COVID-19 patients are being treated in ICUs and looked after by ICU nurses. Doctors, along with nurse anesthetists, do the intubations needed to get COVID-19 patients on ventilators, but then nurses provide the actual hands-on intensive care. Nurses also may be more at risk of contracting the virus than doctors because nurses take care of individual patients for an entire shift. Every nurse reading this column already knows everything I’m saying here, but members of the public, and probably most members of the media, did not.
Now both groups see what nurses do and my hope is they will not forget, because nursing being seen as deserving of media-attention validates what I am calling “New nursing.” Specifically, the value of our work is being acknowledged on its own terms, not in comparison to physicians and not as a slightly more technical version of lay caregiving.
Thinking about this shift in the perception of nursing made me think back to September 2016, when Miss America contestant Kelley Johnson came onto the stage wearing scrubs for the talent section of the Miss America pageant and gave a speech about being a nurse. The theme of the speech was that Johnson had replied “I’m just a nurse” to several of a patient’s questions. The patient eventually told her that she would never be “just a nurse.”
The story might have ended there: a surprising and touching speech by a Miss America contestant highlighting nursing. But then Joy Behar, one of the hosts of talk show The View, mocked Johnson and asked why she was wearing a “doctor’s stethoscope” around her neck over her scrubs. The fury of nurses all over America then came down very hard on The View and on Behar in particular. Nurses, including me, posted pictures of ourselves on social media wearing stethoscopes. My book The Shift was launching, and I began a few book talks wearing a stethoscope and explaining that nurses use stethoscopes for the same reasons doctors do: listening to patients’ heart sounds, lungs, and bellies.
A social media post from that time stuck with me—noting all the outrage nurses were generating, a nurse asked what we as a profession could accomplish if we set our minds to it. I wonder if COVID-19, as terrible as it is, will turn out to be the crucible that forges a new version of nursing; struggle can lead to defeatism, or positive transformation.
The world is now seeing the work of nurses better than ever before and our profession is struggling internationally as never before. What could we accomplish if we set our minds to it? Sufficient PPE, of course. But also, better work environments, a lunch break that’s a real break (since we don’t get paid for that time), guaranteed safe staffing, and an understanding that together, with doctors, and ancillary staff, we contribute immeasurably to good patient care.
New nursing requires that nursing be seen in its entirety. And the time to retire the phrase “I’m just a nurse” is right now.
Theresa Brown, BSN, RN, FAAN, is a nurse and a writer. Her most recent book, The Shift: One Nurse, Twelve Hours, Four Patients’ Lives, was a New York Times bestseller.
She is a frequent contributor to the New York Times and also for CNN.com. She has been interviewed on the NPR program “Fresh Air,” and has appeared on “Hardball,” and MSNBC live.
Brown writes and speaks about nursing, health care and end of life care. She has a PhD in English from the University of Chicago. Her kids inspired her to leave academia and pursue nursing. It is a career change she has never regretted.