When I began writing this editorial in mid-March, I'd just learned of the death of Mildred Dalton Manning, the last survivor of a group of 77 U.S. Army and Navy nurses held prisoner in the Philippines during World War II. These nurses spent three years caring for fellow prisoners in jungle hospitals and tunnels, while enduring the same hardships and illnesses as those they ministered to. All of the nurses received the Bronze Star. (For an excerpt from another nurse's firsthand account, see From the AJN Archives.) It was gratifying to see Manning's story given prominence recently in several large newspapers, including the New York Times and the Washington Post. It's not often nurses are accorded such recognition by the public media.
Reading Manning's obituary—and having nonnurse friends tell me how impressed they were by her story—made me rethink Nurses Week (May 6 through May 12). I know many of my colleagues feel it's outdated, a throwback to a time when nurses were viewed as little more than physicians’ helpers, who should be thanked from time to time with a gift or lunch. From its beginnings—in 1982 President Reagan proclaimed May 6 as National Recognition Day for Nurses, and in 1990 the American Nurses Association formally expanded this to National Nurses Week—some were questioning its appropriateness. In her May 1982 editorial, AJN’s editor Mary Mallison wrote, “To some, the notion of a ‘national nurse's day’ is somewhat embarrassing, but we've got one on May 6, like it or not, Presidential proclamation and all.” She suggested that nurses come up with “affirmations” of what they do by telling a story, beginning with the phrase “Because I'm a nurse and I know what I know…” and then explaining in detail how they used their knowledge and skills to achieve a positive patient outcome. She encouraged nurses to keep these stories ready, so that when people asked “But what is it that nurses really do?” they would hear specific examples of how nurses change lives, save lives. Such examples would help make nursing's contributions visible to the public.
I agree with those who feel that trite mementos and cheap gifts smack of paternalism and tokenism and ignore the professional nature of nursing. (The one I find most distasteful this year: a T-shirt with the slogan, “Be nice. I could be your nurse one day.” Really, a threatening message to potential patients?) And we all know of organizations that have day-to-day policies that devalue nursing but will still go all out for a “Happy Nurses Week” luncheon—as if that makes up for the lack of support shown nurses the rest of the year.
But many organizations have moved past the ice cream parties and the “Nurses rock” tote bags, and I applaud them. Some hospitals and organizations have instituted recognition events to honor the accomplishments of their nurses. They use the day for meaningful reflection on the value of nurses’ work to both patients and health care systems.
In this issue, we're publishing an article by Rebecca Ramos and colleagues from Salem Health in Oregon, describing another way to celebrate Nurses Week. After learning about a charitable program instituted by nurses at Southern Ohio Medical Center, nurses at Salem Health asked their hospital to let them use monies set aside for Nurses Week gifts to fund Nurses Give Back, a program the nurses developed to support community outreach projects. Now in its fourth year, the program has contributed donations of money and volunteer hours to several community groups. It has also created its own charitable organization, Without Strings, which provides free immunizations and basic health care to low-income and homeless people in two counties. And for our series about “edge runners”—nurses so named by the American Academy of Nursing because they are creative and daring problem solvers—we're profiling Donna L. Torrisi, who founded a group of nurse-run health centers to serve residents of Philadelphia's public housing communities.
Mildred Manning and her fellow nurses were undeniably inspiring. For me, they still are. I encourage all nurses to seek out stories of exemplary nurses, past and present. If they're from your own organization, talk them up to your PR folks, suggest a story to your local paper, or write it yourself. The history of nursing is replete with innovators, out-of-the-box thinkers, and risk takers. Now is a good time to remember them, and to reflect on the remarkable work nurses do.