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Commentary: Nurses Going Above and Beyond the Call of Duty

By Marcia Gruber

Buffalo, NY – May is national Nurses' Recognition month. It seems that every newspaper or magazine I see has an article or editorial about the nursing shortage and the fate of health care. What I don't see are commentaries encouraging nursing careers, explaining the variety of choices within nursing or lauding the rewards of a nursing career. I have been a registered nurse for more than 30 years and in this month of celebrating the profession of Nursing, I am compelled to tell you about this incredible honor.

It is an extraordinary privilege to be a nurse. At a time when people are most vulnerable, they let us into their lives. When we meet them, they are usually ill, and feeling powerless and frightened. These stricken human beings come to a hospital and must put their trust in compete strangers. At birth, during illness, in the midst of crises, and even at death, patients and their loved ones turn to a nurse for relief of suffering, guidance and comfort. I have watched people bare their souls and their bodies to their nurse. I have seen nurses rub a patient's back while talking them through an uncomfortable diagnostic test. I have watched doctors rely on the nurse to be their eyes and ears when they cannot be at the bedside.

I have watched a nurse hold a crying mother while her child is receiving chemotherapy. I have heard a medical resident tell the nurse, "you taught me more about reading EKGs than anyone else." I have watched a nurse cry with a mother who finally had a healthy newborn after two stillborn children. I have heard a doctor tell a patient, "you are very luck to have this nurse."

I have watched a wife tell the nurse who found her husband in shock; "thank God you were there." I have watched as an alcoholic patient told his nurse, "you were the only one who believed I could quit drinking." I have seen a nurse spend his lunch break in a patient's room to encourage the patient to eat their lunch too. I have seen a wife shriek with joy as she watched a new nurse walk her husband for the first time since his stroke, and I saw equal joy on that new nurse's face.

I have seen a nurse spend her day off taking a bald-headed kid with cancer to Niagara Falls. I have seen nurses arrive at work on snowmobiles to relive their colleagues who have been working for days because of a record-breaking snowstorm. I have seen nurses take persons with spinal cord injuries on a picnic, again on the nurses' day off. I have read about nurses who carried patients down many flights of stairs to rescue them when the hospital lost all power from a flood. I have seen nurses spend their summer vacations working at camps for sick children.

I have seen nurse scientists study ways to improve patient outcomes. I have seen nurses teach persons with chronic illnesses how to live full and productive lives. I have seen nurses teach other nurses, I have seen nurses teach doctors, I have seen nurses teach families how to care for their loved one at home. I have watched the hospice nurse bring comfort to a dying patient and their family. I have seen the public health nurse manage a TB outbreak and minimize further exposure.

I have seen a nurse assure a marathon runner that his new ostomy will not stop him from running. I have seen a nurse sing "God Bless America" with her Alzheimer's patients. I've seen patients play jokes on their nurse and I've seen nurses tell jokes with their patients. I have seen the nurse stop at the site of a car accident to help a victim until emergency personnel are on the scene.

And every nurse gets calls from family and neighbors with questions about a diagnostic test, a new medicine or a symptom.

But my favorite description of a nurse came from a 47-year-old woman who was dying of lung cancer. After a particularly uncomfortable night, she told me that her nurse was "an angel who reached out to a stranger." I can think of no better definition or compliment. Nurses are ordinary people who do extraordinary things for their fellow human beings. A career in nursing is fulfilling, rewarding, motivating and indeed, a tremendous privilege.

Listener-Commentator Marcia Gruber is vice president of Therapeutic and Patient Access at the Roswell Park Cancer Institute.