I am a registered nurse. In May I will join nurses around the world to honor our profession as we celebrate Florence Nightingale’s 200th birthday. If you don’t know much about Florence Nightingale, she’s considered the founder of modern nursing and the lessons she taught us are particularly relevant today.
Florence Nightingale was born in Italy in 1820, and became a nurse as a young woman. In 1854, she cared for wounded British soldiers on the front lines during the Crimean War and was appalled at the severe overcrowding and unsanitary conditions she found in the combat hospitals, which were a breeding ground for infectious diseases like cholera and typhoid. She realized that a simple step like improving hygiene could save lives, so she organized nurses to clean and sanitize the hospitals, bathe the soldiers and provide clean bandages, clothes and linens, and make sure they had adequate food.
Like Nightingale, nurses today are under enormous pressure amid a global pandemic caused by a very contagious virus. We know that COVID-19 is dangerous to elders and the immuno-compromised, but it is especially dangerous to health workers. Our healthcare workforce goes to work daily with the knowledge that repeated exposure to the virus could be deadly. Despite that awareness, these professionals stand toe-to-toe with this virus every day knowing the risks. They are in the zone, focused on beating this illness. These are the people you want with you in an emergent situation; but what about when the emergency passes? Will we be there for them? Are we there for them now?
If you saw the crowd at the state capitol protesting Colorado’s social distancing rules designed to contain COVID-19 outbreaks, the answer would have to be no. Protesters were standing shoulder to shoulder, often wearing no masks. The vision of the “rugged individual” is a strong part of the American psyche, and many believe it is the promise of America. Individual freedoms matter, and it’s one of the things that sets us apart. This raises the question: Do individual freedoms extend to allowing us to put others at risk? When I say others, I am talking about the people those protesters will rely on to care for them if they get sick. When people use their individual rights to potentially harm themselves, that is one thing. When that risk of harm extends others, it is another thing altogether.
Our nurses and healthcare workforce already face the moral distress that comes with making daily life and death decisions while often being the only person present to support a dying patient. After surviving this pandemic, how many nurses will decide that they didn’t sign up for this? How many will leave?
Now is the time to get ahead of that. We must find ways to support the largest segment of the health care workforce now, before they walk away. This can start with the community. We must create a culture that focuses on wellness, and set up support and coaching groups. Flexible time-off policies may be needed to give them time to heal. Instead of cutting professional development programs due to the economic fallout from the coronavirus, organizations should invest in intentional professional development for nurses.
Investing in nurses now could better prepare them to avoid problems later. Let’s thank them for their service by staying home, wearing a mask in public, keeping our distance and staying healthy.
In this International Year of the Nurse and Midwife, let’s make the decision to do what Florence Nightingale taught us: practice safe hygiene and wash our hands. If we make the collective decision to do these things now it will get us beyond the chaos much more quickly. Then we can all safely make individual decisions to live as we wish. After all, isn’t that what we all want?
Ingrid Johnson is a registered nurse and the president and CEO of the Colorado Center for Nursing Excellence. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org
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