It was change of shift and the break room was bustling with people. The night shift looked worn out and ready for bed, a long night almost behind them. The day shift was warming up, getting the first cups off coffee and sorting out plans for the day. Our nurse manager, Marge, walked in and said she needed us to settle for a moment. “We have an admission coming from the ED,” she said and waited for the groans around the table to stop. “It’s a 24 year old who has an unknown infection and HIV.” The room suddenly became quiet. This was at a time when the HIV epidemic in this country was full blown, the disease itself still fatal and mysterious. We were a small community and our hospital had not had any HIV cases yet, this would be our first. “I need to know,” she continued, “If anyone is going to have concerns caring for this young woman.” The table remained quiet until I spoke up, “I will care for her.” My statement was followed by the others saying one by one, “I will care for her.” Marge smiled, assigned the patient and walked out of the room.
Nursing is a profession that exposes us to diversity and requires us to sometimes work outside of our comfort zones. When we take the Nightingale pledge we commit to caring for those whose lives are entrusted to us. It does not matter where that person came from, what language they speak, or what god they worship–nurses strive to give the same excellent care to each and every patient. In fact, I have seen and felt the frustration when given an assignment and being told, “This is Ms. Jones, she’s a VIP.” The general response I have heard when this statement is spoken is, “Ms. Jones will get the same care I give all my patients.”
This does not mean that we agree with all of our patient’s opinions, respect their life choices, or even like them. What it means is that our beliefs are independent from similarities and differences in each patient that we see. Every individual in front of us is a person who needs help. We care for the vulnerable human being before us with professionalism, skill, and compassion. At times this can cause personal frustration, fear, and even anger. This is expected as we have our own lives, families, successes, and struggles. At other times our work may cause reflection of our own beliefs, contemplation, and growth; however, the patient never sees this. All the patient sees when we walk into the room is a professional who is there to help him or her heal.
Nurses have always been humanitarians and cared for those who live at the fringes of society, the ones that are sometimes labeled as “other” and who we ourselves as nurses label as “patient.” As a profession, we are charged with speaking up for those who cannot speak for themselves and rally for those who are in need. In acts big and small we make sure that our patients are safe and cared for, regardless of whom they are.
Our patient on that day so long ago came to our floor sick and frightened. She had been estranged from her family when they found out about her diagnosis and was homeless. Our unit social worker worked tirelessly to find her a safe place to stay when she was discharged and to connect her with community resources. Our entire unit came together to make sure the patient had everything she needed to begin again and get the necessary follow-up care. Our nurse manager never had to worry about who would care for this person while she was on our unit because we all cared for her. Even if she was not on our assignment sheet for the day we all found a way to stop in during the shift and say hi, bring her a glass of water, or take her for a walk in the hall. We made sure that she knew she was cared for, that she mattered. I will never forget the words I heard Marge say on the phone to the ED as I made my way home that day. She said, “Bring her up. I told you it wouldn’t matter. We’re nurses, we care for everyone.”