2020 was the year that… “Be careful what you wish for,” once again became imprinted in my brain as truth.
In early 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced that 2020 would be the “International Year of the Nurse and Nurse Midwife.” Among colleagues, there was lots of excitement about this. What would we do to recognize and celebrate this recognition? I heard many ideas—editorials, articles, museum displays, seminars, webinars—maybe we’d even get a stamp! The last time we had a commemorative nurse stamp in the US was 1961, almost 60 years ago. Seems like we were overdue for one.
And then, two months into our memorable year, COVID-19 hit. The world started locking down before the US, but for me, my unforgettable day was March 13 (a Friday, of course) when a symptomatic friend tested positive for the virus. Suddenly, everything changed. We all went into lockdown and remote work became the norm. I tried to figure out how to run a free clinic by phone and email (believe me, it’s not easy). I experienced two weeks of panic, followed by three months of bewilderment, and then settled in for the long haul, which is still ongoing.
Meanwhile, nurses were everywhere. The evening news was flooded with images of nurses in ICUs, EDs, nursing homes, and more. There were interviews with nurses crying, their faces bruised from their PPE googles, mourning their dying and dead patients, wondering if they could have done more. They worried about having enough PPE, their families, and their own health. At the same time, we were celebrated with impromptu parades, celebrations, signs on the street: “Heroes Work Here!”. I was offered a 50% discount at the car wash, but I declined. I figured that as a small business, they needed the money more than I needed a modest saving on washing my car.
We even got a TV show, creatively named NURSES with this tantalizing description: “The series follows five young nurses working on the frontlines of St. Mary’s hospital dedicating their lives to helping others, while figuring out how to help themselves.” Will those nurses be nursologists? Time will tell.
On the other side of the coin, the virus was taking its toll in multiple ways. As of the end of October 2020, the WHO presented an analysis that 1500 nurses worldwide had died of COVID-19, although they admitted that this figure was probably grossly underestimated. The White House put together a coronavirus task force in January that included (according to the New York Times) “internationally known AIDS experts; a former drug executive; infectious disease doctors; and the former attorney general of Virginia” but no nurses. President-elect Biden also put together a task force that seemed more diverse but once again, nurses are conspicuously absent from the membership. At a meeting of nurses in the Oval Office to commemorate National Nurses Day in May, Sophia Thomas, President of the American Association of Nurse Practitioners was rebuked by Donald Trump when she stated that there was sporadic access to PPE throughout the US. “Sporadic for you, but not sporadic for a lot of people,” Trump said. “Because I’ve heard the opposite. I have heard that they are loaded up with PPE now.” Thomas was bullied into politely agreeing and backing down from her original statement. This is not the first time I’ve seen this happen, and it makes me angry every time.
Where is the correct middle ground? Do we want to be “angels,” “heroes,” and members of the “most trusted profession” (according to Gallup, 15 years and running)? Or do we want to be nurses at the table, nurses setting policy, nurses seen as leaders, decision makers, and agents of transformation through research, practice, and education? In other words, nursologists? 2020, our “year” gave us lots of the former, not so much of the latter. And thus I say, “Be careful what you wish for.” I worry that our year of recognition will ultimately reinforce stereotypes and not result in meaningful change. To those in our ranks who have sacrificed their lives, and to others who are dealing with ongoing health issues from COVID-19, both direct and indirect, I hope that is not the case. Maybe with the spotlight off, we can get back to business and work to make incremental, but lasting change, which seems to be what nurses do best. That is my wish for 2021—but I’ll be honest—I would still like a stamp!