If you’ve ever been a patient, you already know why nurses have ranked as the most trusted profession in the last 19 Gal-lup polls.
In the course of one day in a hospital, patients will spend 15 minutes with their physician and the other 23 hours, 45 minutes with a nurse. We do more than check vitals, administer medicine and communicate with doctors. We are there for patients when they celebrate intimate triumphs, and when they endure those tragic moments that have no words.
We can also be found on the frontlines of a public crisis.
In early March, once we recognized the projected impact of COVID-19, the New Jersey State Nurses Association (NJSNA) issued a call-to-action, asking all available nurses in the Garden State to join the frontlines in the fight against the novel virus. In a worst-case scenario, New Jersey faced a hospital bed shortfall of 300,000, according to analysis from The Senator Walter Rand Institute for Public Affairs at Rutgers University-Camden.
Registered nurses, student nurses, licensed practical nurses and retired nurses — 1,610 in total —raised their hands for deployment before the state Department of Health’s COVID Volunteer website was set up.
Behind the scenes, NJSNA collaborated with the New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs and the New Jersey Board of Nursing to ensure temporary licenses for graduating nurses. We also worked with New Jersey Assemblyman Anthony S. Verrelli to allow temporary license for master’s degree-prepared mental health professionals.
NJSNA met virtually with state officials—Senate President Steve Sweeney, Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg and Senator Joe Vitale—on key issues, such as personal protective equipment, mental health counseling needs and advanced practice nurses practicing without the need of a physician collaborator after the pandemic ends.
As the pandemic moves into the next stage, NJSNA now sits on the NJDOH committee that advises the governor on resource allocation and vaccine distribution.
Being a nurse is more of a calling than a job. COVID-19 has underscored our duty of service and sacrifice, as well as our promise to always be part of the solution.
‘I BROKE DOWN’
Nurses play many roles in health care, from leader to advocate to counselor to caregiver. During the dark days, they also become an extension of your family.
Melissa Plastino exemplifies that kind of spirit. During the pandemic, she left her role as a post-anesthesia care unit nurse and returned to the intensive care unit.
Plastino recalls contacting the wife of one patient, in particular, whose condition with the virus had gravely progressed. At the time, the patient’s wife and daughter had COVID-19 themselves, which meant the patient’s son was living somewhere else. Plastino proposed a video call to bring the whole family together. The family agreed.
So Plastino made her intubated patient look presentable, placed the fully charged cellphone on the tabletop tripod and started the call.
“It broke my heart seeing the family,” Plastino said. “I broke down in the room and cried and cried like I never cried in my whole career. I don’t think I was ever, ever, ever in my life prepared for something like this. I just felt so defeated in that moment that I couldn’t help them.”
During the video call, the patient’s wife asked Plastino to promise her one thing: “Please be with him, hold his hand and tell him I love him.”
After the call, the family talked to their physician about stopping life support so their husband and father would no longer suffer. Plastino was present during the procedure. As she held her patient’s hand, she recited the Lord’s Prayer. She also took a picture of her holding his hand with the hopes his family would see it.
On her way home after her shift, Plastino received a return text message from the cellphone she used to text the photo of her patient’s last moments on Earth:
“Hi, this is Bob’s son. I hope this is Melissa. I just need to tell you that you being with my father when he passed gave us such relief. We were scared he would be alone and, if you knew my father, you would know that family is the world to him. So you doing this for us means more than you can imagine. I can’t express in words the gratitude we have for you guys. The way you were upset for us was just everything and more to us and we know our Dad felt our love through you. So from the absolute bottom of our hearts, we thank you for all that you and the rest of the heroes are doing.”
Suzanne Drake is a psychiatric advanced practice nurse who came out of retirement to help her colleagues suffering from acute stress disorders on the frontlines.
She knows that nurses are struggling with the continuous onslaught of death and dying. To make matters worse, CO-VID-19’s ability to spread so easily through aerosol has robbed families of meaningful closure. “Patients and their loved ones don’t get to say goodbye,” she says. “They don’t get to hug anybody. It’s excruciating. With skill and compassion, that’s where the nurse comes in. The nurse will be there.”
Drakes helps fellow nurses increase their resilience by promoting better coping mechanisms. Highly individualized interventions may include simple measures, like taking small breaks from the trauma during a work shift, a visit to the chapel, attending a support group or taking a short run after work to more targeted trauma-based cognitive behavioral therapy, family grief therapy and medication.
Despite all the service and sacrifice, nurses keep answering the call.
“I’ve never been more proud to be a nurse,” Drake said. “There is a reason that nursing is the most trusted of professions, but sometimes that selflessness is at the expense of the nurse.”
Judy Schmidt is chief executive officer of the New Jersey State Nurses Association.