Following in the Footsteps of Clara Barton

clara-barton-photographed-by-matthew-bradyAt Antietam: From government clerk to “Angel of the Battlefield”

This Saturday marks the 154th anniversary of the Civil War Battle of Antietam—what has been called “the single bloodiest day in American military history.” Confederate army and Union troops faced off in Sharpsburg, Maryland. They fought for almost two days and when the battle ended, there were over 22,000 casualties among both sides. In the middle of it all, Clara Barton, a former teacher and government clerk, drove wagons of supplies around battle lines and tended to wounded soldiers.

Antietam marked the beginning of the legacy of Clara Barton, who on that day earned the title “Angel of the Battlefield.” Today, a monument to her stands at one end of the battlefield.

Bringing the Red Cross to America

arc-logoWhen the war ended, Barton continued to work for the soldiers, founding the Bureau of Records of Missing Men of the Armies of the United States to identify the millions of missing and dead soldiers. After a visit to Geneva with the International Red Cross in 1880, she returned and established the American Red Cross and became its president until 1904. […]

September 16th, 2016|Clara Barton 2016, Nursing|0 Comments

Adapting to the Emotional Toll of Nursing

take2refectionsillustrationsept2016New nurses may find themselves confronted with great human suffering, enormous technical challenges, and the norms and pressures of the nursing profession and the individual workplace.

Most eventually learn the skills and knowledge they need to succeed in the profession. But some may struggle more than others with the emotional intensity of the work. A question that seems to come up a lot when nurses write about their work goes something like this: How do you keep caring as a nurse and not get burned out? How do you develop a resilient professional persona?

This month’s Reflections essay, How I Built a Suit of Armor (and Stayed Human),” by Jonathan Peter Robb, enumerates the challenges faced by a sensitive new nurse and the ways he found to protect himself over time. Here Robb, a district nurse for the National Health Service in London, England, describes one kind of challenge he faced:

The weight of being responsible for a person’s health wasn’t one I had prepared for. Sitting in lectures doesn’t train you for the moment when you’re standing at the end of a bed looking at a patient who is struggling to breathe, semiconscious (but who just last week was sitting up and talking), and thinking: Did I miss something? Is this my fault?

As Robb writes, “caring hurts.” Gradually he found himself building defenses that helped him to continue doing the work. Robb calls the development of these defenses “building a suit of armor,” one he can take off when he goes home to his family—but as he describes the process, it seems clear that he’s never allowed himself to slide into callousness about his patients.  […]

September 14th, 2016|Nursing, nursing perspective, Patients|0 Comments

On the 15th Anniversary of 9/11, Lingering Pain

Skywards by aussiegall / Louise Docker, via Flickr. Skywards by aussiegall / Louise Docker, via Flickr.

Yesterday was the 15th anniversary of the September 11 attacks.  On my way to work in Manhattan on Friday, I listened to a radio program about the lives of some of those who were involved one way or another in the tragedy of that day.

I heard the shaky voice of a Boston airport ticket agent who had assisted one of the hijackers to get on one of the flights that struck the World Trade Center. He’s met some of the victims’ family members and say that he still feels tremendous guilt and suffers from bouts of depression, especially on anniversary dates. He now works for Homeland Security. […]

September 12th, 2016|nursing perspective, Public health|0 Comments

To Boldly Go . . . In Search of Nurses

By Beth Toner, MJ, RN, senior communications officer, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

Nurse Christine Chapel, original Star Trek series/via Wikipedia Nurse Christine Chapel, original Star Trek series/via Wikipedia

Inaccurate Representations in Popular Culture

Many critics and fans delighted in the release of the “reboot” Star Trek in 2009; the film, after all, breathed new life into the franchise, and introduced a whole new generation to its beloved characters—including Kirk, Spock, and the inimitable Dr. McCoy, better known as ‘Bones.’ A lifelong Trekker (I was born just weeks after the series launched in 1966), I was delighted, too. Yet I was exasperated at the notable invisibility of a minor recurring character: Nurse Christine Chapel.

Many of you may be asking: “Really? What does a fictional science fiction nurse have to do with real, professional nurses?”

Symptom of Broader Invisibility

The lack of emphasis placed on Nurse Chapel’s character is symptomatic of what I believe is a larger problem: the absence of nurses’ voices in key positions—not just in pop culture, but more importantly in boardrooms, community and nonprofit organizations, and in policy making. Furthermore, where nurses are present, there is a general misunderstanding of what it is nurses do every day—and how our presence is vital to building a society in which all have the opportunity to live the healthiest lives possible.

Which takes me back to Nurse Chapel. In her 1960s incarnation, she was played ably by Majel Barrett, yet most of what she did reflected none of what nurses really do. In fact, her most memorable character trait was pining after the inscrutable Mr. Spock in displays of wildly unprofessional behavior.

The show’s creators had a chance, in the various movies that ensued over the years, to correct the public’s misperceptions of the role of nurses and the integral role we play, but a strong role for Nurse Chapel never materialized. Nurse Chapel remained largely invisible, mentioned in passing at one point by a harried Dr. McCoy, who calls out to her to ask her to hand him something as casualties pour into the sick bay. (Interestingly, in the 1979 movie Star Trek: The Motion Picture, the audience briefly learns that Nurse Chapel is now Dr. Chapel, apparently a “promotion” of sorts.)

Who’s Making Decisions Affecting Public Health?

This, of course, is only one small instance of popular media getting it wrong when it comes to nurses. From Nurse Jackie to Joy Behar’s stethoscope slight on the television show The View, it’s an all too familiar story. But these gaffes pale in comparison to the real life absence of nurses where decisions are made that affect the health of our nation, from school districts reducing the number of school nurses on-site to city councils voting on urban design issues affecting the availablity of walkable parks and safe sidewalks and bike lanes.

Getting Nurses’ Voices Heard

How do we make sure that we, as nurses, not only have a seat at the proverbial table—but that our voices are heard? […]

September 8th, 2016|Nursing, nursing perspective, Public health|1 Comment

All Unhappy Patients Are Not Alike

illustration by the author illustration by the author

The first sentence from Leo Tolstoy’s novel Anna Karenina is one of the most famous in literature:

All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

It can easily be applied to patients. Happy patients tend to love their doctors, feel they received the best possible care, and consider their nurses invaluable.

Unhappy patients are unhappy in their own way. The challenge for busy nurses is resisting the temptation to turn a deaf ear or feign listening, in effect reducing patients’ concerns to “waa, waa, waa.”

A common thread among unhappy patients is unmet expectations.

Sometimes the patient’s expectations are unrealistic because they’re based on incorrect assumptions—but they do not know this. Responding requires a willingness to listen and the patience to tease out why a patient is unhappy with their care. Let patients tell their stories. Most bedside nurses have limited time; it’s okay to enlist help from a case manager, social worker, or nurse navigator if necessary. However, investing time up front to improve communication with a patient may pay off in dividends by smoothing the rest of your shift.

Begin by listening. Sometimes, I’ll take a seat, and write what the patient says while they talk. This simple act conveys their complaint is taken seriously, and helps defuse the situation. Having an open mind while a patient explains why they are unhappy with their care has taught me a lot and improved my communication skills. […]