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?

  • Let’s start a discussion whenever we have a chance. I’ll be joining a panel of nurses at this year’s Stanford Medicine X conference that asks, very simply, “Where are the nurses?” Just last week, an #hcldr (health care leadership) chat asked a similar question, and what we learned will inspire and drive our discussion. (You can find a Storify summary of that chat here; I also encourage you to watch our panel, livestreamed for free, on Sunday, September 18.)
  • Let’s clear up the misconceptions and misperceptions. Whenever you have the opportunity, explain to family and friends what you really do. If you’re watching a favorite television show and see the role of nurse misrepresented, point out what’s wrong. When you’re with patients, find “teachable moments” to explain to them what you do when you’re not in the room with them. (“Before I could give you this medication, I had to call your physician and clarify the dosage.”)
  • Let’s get involved. Don’t wait to be asked for your opinion on issues that affect the health of your community. Know what policy decisions are being made at a local, state, and national level. Attend city council meetings that are open for public comment. Write letters to the editor of your local newspaper.

Often we spend so much time caring for our patients that we assume those outside of our profession know the important role we play. But unless we make our voices heard, we will continue to be like Nurse Chapel: much loved, but invisible.

2016-11-21T13:00:58+00:00 September 8th, 2016|Nursing, nursing perspective, Public health|1 Comment

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  1. Brent Thompson PhD RN September 9, 2016 at 1:18 pm

    After 36 years as a nurse I have given up on trying to change media portrayals of nurses, especially for those from 50 years ago. Drama requires conflict not accuracy. Nurses, physicians, lawyers, firemen, and cops are all in dramas because there is conflict. None are portrayed accurately and never will be. Real life portrayals would be boring.

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