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The Unwavering Courage of Nurses

Kennedy, Maureen Shawn, MA, RN, FAAN

AJN The American Journal of Nursing: May 2019 - Volume 119 - Issue 5 - p 7
doi: 10.1097/01.NAJ.0000557890.67747.0d
Editorial
Free

Courage can take many forms.

AJN Editor-in-Chief E-mail: shawn.kennedy@wolterskluwer.com

Figure.

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I can't imagine what must have been going through the minds of the nurses and health care workers at Adventist Health Feather River in Paradise, California, when they saw flames advancing toward their building. The Camp Fire, which started on November 8, 2018, and burned uncontrollably for more than two weeks, is considered the most destructive and deadliest fire in California's history—destroying over 153,000 acres and killing 85 people.

Smoke was visible in the distance when the morning shift reported to work on November 8, but the fire quickly accelerated toward the hospital. According to various reports and personal accounts, patients were loaded into whatever vehicles were available—ambulances, police cars, and workers’ personal vehicles—as the staff rushed to evacuate. Roads were blocked by the fire and many people fleeing became trapped, nurses and their patients among them. One group took shelter in a garage where nurses helped EMTs and firefighters hose down the structure and clear away brush to keep the fire at bay. Other nurses became trapped by the fire on their way home from work, after they had ensured their patients were evacuated safely. Their own cars were destroyed and they narrowly escaped with their lives. (Listen to two of these nurses, Nichole Jolly and Allyn Pierce, describe their experiences at http://links.lww.com/AJN/A134.) The recurring theme from their accounts: “We did what we needed to do.”

We might not be surprised that these nurses put their patients’ needs first—after all, nurses have been doing this forever, from the brave souls who volunteered during yellow fever and typhoid epidemics to our active-duty military colleagues who volunteer to go to the “first-stop” casualty stations near the front lines of combat. In February, a Mich­igan nurse strapped on snowshoes and trekked a half-mile in the snow to reach a homebound hospice patient because driving was unsafe. In almost every disaster or emergency, whether man-made or an act of nature, nurses have acted with courage and selflessness.

We've seen nurses’ unwavering response to help others again and again. We saw it in the World Trade Center attacks on 9/11, when nurse and police officer Kathy Mazza died along with colleague Stephen Huczko, another nurse-officer, while assisting evacuations prior to the collapse of the towers. Six of the 11 nurses who died that day were first responders. In the immediate aftermath of the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995, LPN Rebecca Anderson rushed into the unstable building and guided several people to safety before she was hit by falling debris; she later died from her injuries.

And courage isn't only visible during disasters. It's also there when nurses do the right thing, even when doing so can put their job or career in jeopardy. Young ICU nurse Katie George, who advocated for a comatose patient against the advice of hospital hierarchy and saw her patient go home (see Profiles, October 2016), and Alex Wubbels, the Utah nurse who was arrested when protecting a patient's rights (see Ethical Issues, March 2018), are examples of such courage.

There's courage in the selflessness of the many nurses who volunteer for humanitarian and medical missions and respond to disasters at home and abroad. In this issue, we recount a story by Debby Dailey, a long-time American Red Cross nurse volunteer, who spent countless hours helping the victim of a fire. And this is just one story from one nurse about one disaster. (You can listen to a podcast with Debbie at http://links.lww.com/AJN/A135.)

Nursing takes a steely courage that many people don't possess. We deal with raw emotions on a daily basis, taking in the grief and loss and pain and hopelessness of patients and families who look to us to make them feel better. Dealing with such emotions is physically and emotionally exhausting and can take its toll, especially after disaster work. I applaud the Texas Nurses Association for compiling Care for the Caregiver resources: www.texasnurses.org/page/c4c.

This Nurses Week, I hope nurses in all settings and roles pause to reflect on the incredible work that is nursing. In the end, nurses do what needs to be done. Courage and commitment bring us back day after day—and often, despite all the barriers, there are tremendous successes. Ask Katie George or Debby Dailey.

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