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Nurses Week 2020 comes with challenges, opportunities

Amanda Goodman

Each May nurses are recognized nationally as part of a weeklong celebration and awareness campaign of the vital role they play in the health care field. 

This year is no different — except that it is extremely different because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s bizarre, I would have never expected I’d be working through something like this, much less working, literally on the front lines of it,” intensive care unit nurse and ASU alumna Lauren Leander said. “I feel very fortunate that this has come six years into my career so at least I’m settled into a specialty. But it’s wild, it’s really wild. It’s just a completely different take on being a nurse.”

Leander, who graduated from Arizona State University's Edson College of Nursing and Health Innovation, works at Banner University Medical Center. Recently, she unintentionally became part of the masked-face resistance to protests demanding the reopening of the Arizona economy.

“We were truly there to be a presence for our patients. I was there to be a presence for the people that can’t speak up for themselves and I think that is what we do best as nurses; we are advocates,” Leander said.

It was an extension of the work she’s doing at the bedside. For the last couple of months, Leander’s been treating strictly COVID-19 patients. She was the nurse who admitted the hospital’s “patient zero” when they opened up their COVID-19 unit. That patient was just 27 years old.

Over the course of this pandemic, nurses and their health care colleagues have received a lot of praise and community support as the value of their work is seen in a new, lifesaving light. They’ve also been overworked, underprotected and exposed to COVID-19 at higher rates in some cases.

The irony is that 2020 was always meant to be a celebration of the nursing profession. As part of a global effort to raise awareness of and investment in the workforce, the World Health Organization and partners designated 2020 the International Year of the Nurse and Midwife. It was timed to coincide with the 200th anniversary of the birth of Florence Nightingale.

And while reasons to celebrate have been few and far between lately, Leander says they’ve been seeking out victories big and small in their unit to help get them through the tough days.

“We play ‘Here Comes The Sun’ over the speakers every time there’s a COVID patient who is discharged; we have posters everywhere. So I think Nurses Week is going to be an extension of the joy we’ve tried to create.”

Below, Leander shares her thoughts on National Nurses Week, as well as how to support nurses now and in the future.

 after a shift in the COVID-19 unit at her hospital

Lauren Leander

Question: What does Nurses Week mean to you?

Answer: To me, Nurses Week is sort of like New Year’s Eve. It’s a chance to reflect on our year. It’s a chance to stop and remember why we got into this profession, celebrate new achievements and lift each other up. It is a chance to be seen and recognized and celebrate all the generations of nurses that came before us. Nurses Week brings out the best in us as a profession. 

Q: What do you want people to know about the profession?

A: I don’t think there is anything like it. In one day I can hold a patient’s hand as they pass away, or bandage a wound, celebrate with the family of an organ transplant recipient, wash someone’s hair, ask a patient to say their name after coming off a ventilator, or feed someone their first meal of solid food in weeks. I am intimately involved in people’s lives on their worst day, and sometimes one of their best, and it is an absolute honor. 

Q: Why did you become a nurse?

A: Nursing found me. It literally popped into my head on a drive home one day. And I never looked back. I knew in my heart it was the right decision. I had changed my major four times in college and was feeling pretty lost before that. 

Q: Who inspires you on the job?

A: My ICU intensivists are the most level-headed, intelligent and thoughtful human beings I know. They directly involve every nurse in the patient’s plan of care and genuinely treasure our opinions. It is teamwork at its finest. They naturally make sure the bedside nurse is working beside them and not behind them. 

Q: Do you think the pandemic has raised the profile of nurses? If so in what ways?

A: I think it has given people a fresh perspective on the resilience of the profession. It has brought out the humanity and the reality of our work. The public knows we care for sick people, many of whom have infectious diseases. But the bar has been raised with COVID-19. Now, we are caring for patients of a disease that could seriously infect our families, children and even ourselves. We are having to self-isolate. We haven’t seen or hugged our loved ones in weeks. We are terrified to see young, healthy adults in our ICUs. We are reinventing the way our hospitals run. COVID-19 has brought unprecedented challenges and we have risen to the occasion to overcome them.

Q: How can people support nurses now and year-round?

A: I think on a large scale, nurses should be compensated better financially and not seen as a replaceable asset. We should be seen as individuals with our own talents and strengths. As an ICU nurse, my critical thinking skills are valuable. Our doctors depend on my patient assessments, and I know that my input is important, because I spend 12-plus hours a day with my patients. It’s important that our health care system keeps a sharp focus on this, as our contributions should not be undervalued.

On a smaller scale, all we ask for is gratitude. Looking us in the eyes and thanking us for what we do is often enough, along with seeing my patient leave the hospital in a healthier state than when they arrived. Knowing that they can now lead more normal and fulfilling lives because of the care we’ve provided, is immensely gratifying.