Altruism in Danskos: What Our Nurses Really Need From Us for Nurses Week 2020
Nurses’ tireless care often goes unrecognized in the world of medicine and hospitals. Surgeons and doctors get lots of attention for their good work, but nurses’ vital roles remain less heroized. Nurses' efforts are far more important than most people realize, especially during public health crises.
As we celebrate our nurses during Nurses Week this year, May 6th-12th, we must recognize that they were working incredibly hard long before COVID-19.
The Pre-COVID-19 Nursing Workplace
For decades, the world has had a staggering deficit of nurses. There are about 29 million nurses and midwives around the world. That may sound like a lot, but the WHO says that we need 36 million nurses to meet current global health needs. That means that around the world, nurses are doing the extra work to fill the void of those 7 million missing nurses.
Imagine that your boss laid off one out of every five of your coworkers, but expected your team to get just as much done without those workers. That’s more or less how many nurses have operated for their entire careers. By 2035, we could have a global deficit of 13 million nurses. That’s a huge hole that needs to be filled.
What Results From This Lack of Nurses?
Nurses tend to lots of patients at once. Depending on their part of the hospital, a nurse could be responsible for up to 10 patients at a single time.
Can you imagine trying to care for that many sick people at once? Think of how difficult it is to deal with just one sick child or spouse in your house!
Most nurses would prefer to tend to fewer patients because then they can give higher quality care to each person. However, nurses have been a regular target for decades of hospital budget cuts, which has led to this severe staffing shortage.
In hospitals, this deficit of nurses means that each nurse may need to care for more patients than is safe. With limited time for each patient, nurses can’t always provide the depth of emotional and physical care that patients need.
On top of unsafe staffing levels, nurses are required to work long, 12-hour shifts, often without overtime pay. Mandatory overtime is “having a negative effect on patient safety” according to the American Nurses Association. The stress caused by these frequent, long shifts can also lead to nurses seeking other professions. Since we have too few nurses in our country, we should be trying to retain current nurses and recruit new ones, not working them so hard that they burn out.
Long shifts and staffing shortages are huge, persistent workplace problems that have challenged nurses for decades. Then, out of nowhere, COVID-19 hit. As so many people have said, this crisis has brought to the surface all sorts of problems that our society previously had.
The Challenges of Nursing During COVID-19
In New York, New Jersey, Washington, Michigan, and other hotspots around the country, nurses face new, scary challenges during COVID-19. Of course, we have heard about the lack of personal protective equipment (PPE). Nurses in many hospitals don’t have the gloves, masks, or sanitizer they need to ensure a sterile environment.
I recently spoke with an RN in a COVID-19 hotspot about her experience during the COVID crisis. “On my trauma floor, we usually have a mix of planned admits (patients) and victims of unexpected trauma. With no planned admits, all our patients right now are either victims of accidents or are very sick with infections.” These patients from unexpected trauma, such as car accidents, require a lot of care. The planned admission patients don’t require as much attention. Therefore, the nurses on her trauma floor have only the toughest patients to care for. However, nurse staffing hasn’t increased to accommodate the increased workload. It’s difficult for nurses to catch any sort of a break with so many high-needs patients to tend to.
On top of a tougher medical environment, nurses are offering more emotional support than ever. Many hospitals have restricted visits from friends and family to reduce the risk of coronavirus transmission within the hospital. While this measure helps combat the pandemic, it makes it difficult for patients to feel the love that can be so helpful for recovery.
Nurses help patients set up Zoom calls with their family members, but that only goes so far. When asked about her patients, the RN I spoke with said, “I feel so much compassion for these patients and their families, but I can only provide so much support while still doing all that I need to do as a nurse.” She wants to give more emotional support, but her workload doesn’t allow for that kind of quality time with each patient. The emotional toll of the pandemic on nurses is substantial, and we need to recognize that.
Perhaps the biggest fear nurses currently face is from potentially transmitting the virus between patients. Nurses are used to dealing with diseases daily. From the flu to the common cold, they know that bouncing around between sick people is a risk for them and their patients. Nurses take many precautions against hospital-acquired infections, such as the prolific use of hand-sanitizer. But many nurses don’t have access to the basic PPE currently, making it very difficult to prevent transmission.
Nurses really don’t want to spread COVID-19. “Most of us aren’t terrified of dying from COIVD-19. Rather, we are scared of spreading it to one of our vulnerable patients, who then could die from it,” said the RN. The gravity of spreading the coronavirus to an at-risk patient cannot be overstated.
Older people and people with pre-existing health conditions are much more likely to die from COVID-19. These are also people who are more likely to be in the hospital for reasons unrelated to the virus.
When hospitals don’t have proper testing capabilities, nurses can’t know which patients have COVID-19 and which patients don’t. They could unknowingly spread the disease from an asymptomatic patient to a 70-year old who is recovering from a tough surgery. This is a lot of additional stress and responsibility for nurses to take on.
What Can We Do To Show Our Appreciation?
“Don’t Go Hard” read a headline in a Moab, Utah newspaper, when referring to mountain biking and climbing. Hospitals need all the beds they have to deal with coronavirus and other, life-threatening diseases. So if you can help it, don’t end up in the hospital! Be extra careful in your car. Don’t take unnecessary risks. Get enough sleep. Pay attention to your emotional well-being and try to stay sane during the quarantine.
When you are outside, wear a mask! Wash your hands. Keep that 6-foot distance. Every safe interaction we have with each other decreases the workload on our nation’s nurses.
And from the nurse herself- “To be honest, I’m getting a little burnt out on being called a hero. It’s a national tragedy and we are all just doing what little we can. For most people, staying at home is the best thing they can be doing. It doesn’t feel like heroism, but it is no less important for people to stay at home than it is for nurses to do their jobs. It’s nice having people call me a hero, but what they are doing matters more than what they are saying.”
Article written by Evan Levy on May 6, 2020.
Cover image courtesy of Undraw.