Reflecting on the International Year of the Nurse and the Midwife

Marsha Lewis, School of Nursing Dean, standing in front of a school building.

-By Marsha Lewis, PhD, RN, FAAN, Dean and Professor, University at Buffalo School of Nursing

Nurses are superheroes.

They welcome new lives into our world, and with kindness and dignity facilitate end-of-life transitions. They are the primary providers of care to underserved and rural communities. They are essential members of interprofessional care teams, often having the most frequent direct patient contact. They are scientists working to improve care delivery and patient outcomes, to expand our knowledge of everything health-related; they are the educators who reach the next generation of nurses and advanced practitioners; they are leaders directing teams of all sizes, from small practices to military units and entire health care systems. They are in our homes, private practices, community organizations, hospitals, schools, boardrooms and battlefields. They comprise the largest portion of the global health care workforce.

They are the most trusted profession.

This year they were enlisted to help us navigate uncharted waters as the novel coronavirus tightened its grip on the world, particularly in the U.S.

We’ve rightfully heaped praise upon nurses, but too often the only nurses represented in the media are ICU and emergency nurses. We must also applaud the nurse educators, who are already balancing their own practice with bringing up the next generation of sorely needed nurses in a rapidly changing and unpredictable environment.

We must cheer for the mental health nurses who quietly pivoted to implement new ways to reach their patients as mental health needs became even more exacerbated, for family, women’s health and pediatrics practitioners taking after-hours calls and making telehealth visits to ensure their patients obtain prescriptions and understand treatment options and lab results and when to seek emergency care, helping to alleviate stress on hospitals.

We must praise the community health nurses running flu vaccination clinics and screening COVID-19 patients and educating the public to keep them safe; the school nurses who are pivotal for a safe transition to in-person instruction for our nation’s children and stopping the spread of a highly contagious disease in classrooms; and the nurse anesthetists who assumed critical care responsibilities and developed emergency programs and procedures. 

Yes, nurses are heroes. But nursing is not a meme. Nurses are not stereotypes. And nurses are not superhuman. The United States is in the midst of yet another wave of COVID-19, and we face a very dark winter.

Nurses are exhausted and overwhelmed.

Within the profession, especially over the last decade, nurses are encouraged to practice self-care to preserve their own health, and to prevent burnout so that they may continue to care for others. We have shouted from the mountaintops, “Nurse, care for thyself!” all the while expecting them to care for nations of people, often without compensation and resources sufficient to effectively and safely do so.

While the International Year of the Nurse and the Midwife has shone a light on the profession that helped light our path through this time of darkness, what we must remember – and what we must take away from this time of COVID-19 – is that beyond small acts of “appreciation” for nurses, we also need to actively support them. Always. Pandemic or not. Kind words and pot-banging – while moving and well-intentioned – address only one symptom of a fragile health care system that was so quickly and suddenly overwhelmed.

How can the public better support our nation’s nurses? Knowing where to start can be difficult. But at the very least, we can ensure that our gestures of appreciation during COVID-19 are not hollow and void of sincerity.

Listen to the experts.

Wash your hands.

Practice physical distancing.

Wear a mask.

Published December 9, 2020