Nurses as Cheerleaders?

By Shawn Kennedy, MA, RN, AJN interim editor-in-chief


1906 Cheerleader Postcard/via Halloween Street, Flickr

While I was attending the Sigma Theta Tau International Honor Society of Nursing 40th biennial convention at the Indianapolis Convention Center last weekend, it was obvious that there was another event going on in the complex. In contrast to the nurses (and we’re talking the experienced practitioners, educators, and researchers who, for the most part, are in the AARP-eligible segment), there were numbers of mothers and their teen and preteen daughters, most of whom were in make-up they’d never be allowed to wear to school. (Think heavy, blue eye-liner and sparkles.) No problem figuring out who was attending which conference.

I asked one woman walking with young girls in glitzy outfits what brought them to the convention center. She told me it was a cheerleading competition and then asked what I was there for. I told her it was a nursing conference. As she hurried off, she said, “Well, you’re like cheerleaders, but for sick people.”

At first I laughed, but then I wanted to grab her and straighten her out. Nurses are just like cheerleaders? Here I was, attending a meeting of nursing’s honor society, some of the best and brightest in nursing presenting the work they do to advance knowledge and practice to improve health care, and this woman likens nurses to the perky young things in skimpy costumes who excel at smiling, dancing, and yelling.

Full disclosure: I played sports growing up and could not have cared less whether cheerleaders were there or not. (Maybe male athletes feel differently and their testosterone levels increase when they see women urging them on to do better?) In my experience, cheerleaders were the ones who shied away from really participating in sports. I saw them as tangential and not really contributing to the outcome of the event. When the players were ready to take their places on the court, the cheerleaders quickly scurried off and sat over in the corner until the court was empty again.

I hope that woman’s view of cheerleaders is different from mine. Maybe she sees cheerleading as a critical support to players, making a difference in whether a player has a good day or bad day, whether the game is won or lost. That’s how I see nurses. But sometimes I’m reminded that, contrary to those old (and sexist) Virginia Slims cigarette commercials, nursing “hasn’t come a long way—baby.”

*Nursing’s image has been a subject of many recent blog posts, especially with the advent of recent TV shows with nurses as central characters. Here are some that might be of interest:

Nurses to Obama: ‘Don’t Love Us — Just Put Us at the Table.’

Have ‘Mercy’ — One Nurse’s Take on the Latest Nurse Drama

Nurse, Angel, Bride: Where’s the Substance in Coverage of Nurses?

Sure Nurses Are Honest, But They’re Also Highly Skilled Professionals

Nurse Jackie Revisited: Do the Cringes Outweigh the Moments of Recognition?

Dirty Harry, Meet Nurse Jackie: AJN’s Editor-in-Chief-Emeritus Takes Sneak Peak at First Six Episodes of Showtime Series

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Senior editor/social media strategy, American Journal of Nursing, and editor of AJN Off the Charts.


  1. Joan Reinders, RNC March 19, 2016 at 4:20 pm

    Cheerleaders are there to encourage the team, just as nurses encourage their patients. This is what the sweet cheerleader meant as she was trying to encourage you with your negative attitude.

    Incidentally, a lot of nurses are also former cheerleaders.

  2. Samuel A. Storicks, Sr. LPN December 6, 2009 at 12:37 pm

    Actually, nurses are kind of like cheerleaders in that they help lift the spirits of those (read patient) who are up against the opposing team (read disease process)even if the face of formidable odds. Often a patient’s mental disposition can make the difference in the outcome of a treatment. By encouraging the patient, allowing them to voice their concerns, and just “being there” to talk to can help boost the patient’s mental outlook. Case in point: When I was a new nurse just out of school I cared for an older nurse who had been diagnosed with cancer. She often made the statement that she was just at the nursing home waiting to die. One day, in the dining area of the nursing home I was working in another patient became confused and jittery. The older nurse suddenly said, “Her blood sugar has dropped. Get her s glass of orange juice and put some sugar in it.” We checked the other patien’t blood sugar, found out the older nurse was right, and took appropriate actions. Later while talking to the older nurse I asked her why she was so usually withdrawn from everyone around her. She stated, “I’m just going to die anyway. What do I have to offer anyone?” I told her, “As a nurse, one of our jobs is to be a teacher, correct?” She replied, “Yes.” I then told her, “Today you taught me something I should have known about the symptoms of low blood sugar but had never seen before. Today you were a nursing teacher and helped avert worse consequences for the other patient. As a nurse teacher you still have a lot to offer.” Within a week the older nurse had transferred to an assisted living center and had returned part time to teaching at a local community college. That was six years ago. Recently, she showed up at that facility where I now work with a group on nursing students who were at our facilty for their clinical rotation. The older nurse thanked me for encouraging her to get back into teaching others and not feeling so sorry for herself. As she put it, “By having something to look forward to and not concentrating on what was wrong with me, I was able to handle the chemo better. I’ve been cancer free for two years so far.” So if by cheering a patient on I can have such an effect even only once in a great while I say, “Rah! Rah! Rah! Go team!”

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