Amanda Anderson, formerly a graduate intern at AJN, is now a contributing editor

Culture_of_Safety_2016My first Nurses Week as a nurse, my mother sent me a card and a small gift. When I opened it, I was surprised by its message—no one had ever given me anything for Nurses Week during nursing school. I had no idea that the holiday even existed.

As an English Literature major–turned nursing student, I was pretty clueless about the world of nursing when I launched my career. I spent most of my first year fumbling around in the dark, looking for Florence’s light.

As years passed, I learned more about nursing, claimed it as my own, and became versed in the industry secrets. I started to take pride in Nurses Week, seeing it as a venue for speaking out about nursing.

One year, for the thirty days preceding the holiday, I wrote to Google about 30 living nurse legends, in hopes that they would post a nursing-themed Google Doodle for our week. On another, I penned (and never sent) a scathing letter to a hospital president who had sent a kitschy card I took offense to.

Other years, I simply enjoyed the food, unenthused by the celebrations but happy for a distraction.

It wasn’t until recent years that I learned that many nurses actually prefer a more issues-oriented approach to our annual seven days of recognition. I learned that the American Nurses Association sets a theme for each Nurses Week, in an attempt to drive policy and practice. Year of Ethics was my first with a role at AJN, and I started to understand the importance of this designation as I watched it become part of our discussions about important topics.

In contrast, at the bedside there was little talk of this other more serious side of Nurses Week related to policy, quality of care, and professional identity. We all complained about the trinkets and stale cookies, and if we were even aware of visiting speakers we didn’t make an effort to leave the unit to see them.

So it’s interesting now, as the point person for Nurses Week at my hospital, to see it through the lens of administration. I’ve tried to incorporate this year’s ANA theme, “Culture of Safety: It Starts With You.” My planning committee even put their own spin on it by adding the slogan “Your Health First” to emphasize the importance of self-care. We have incredible speakers coming in, who I’m sure will give motivational, evidence-based talks. Even though we have the customary food and flowers, I’ve tried to keep focused on the importance of a day too often watered down by trivialities.

I was fortunate enough to see the president of the International Council of Nurses (ICN), Judith Shamian, speak at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City last week. She spoke about global health priorities, in the process drawing attention to the way a nursing voice was often left out.

Nurses often hold “experiential keys to real change,” Shamian said, and our voices lead to great innovations—when we’re invited to share them. I left with her charge in my mind, trying to determine the best way to help the nurses at my hospital understand that their voices matter both to the future of the profession and the quality of care we can provide our patients.

So I begin to see how Nurses Week can be used to bring attention to important issues. I’m still pondering how to present the urgency of taking action beyond the bedside to the nurses at my hospital. My hope, shared by many other, is that we can enjoy Nurses Week, but also use our voices and unique perspective in advocacy and community outreach. Maybe then we will gain Nurses Week prizes that we actually do want.