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What Is a Nurse?

Reising, Virginia A., DNP, RN, PHNA-BC, PEL-CSN

AJN The American Journal of Nursing: June 2019 - Volume 119 - Issue 6 - p 11
doi: 10.1097/01.NAJ.0000559784.09183.4d
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Traditional images of the profession don't reflect the myriad roles we now play.

Virginia A. Reising is an assistant clinical professor in the University of Illinois at Chicago College of Nursing. Contact author: vmontg2@uic.edu. The author has disclosed no potential conflicts of interest, financial or otherwise.

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Recently, I was asked to participate in my son's Community Workers Day at school to talk about my role as a nurse. His teacher let me know I could wear my uniform and bring my stethoscope. But I haven't worn scrubs since my first nursing job when I worked on a postpartum unit in a hospital in Chicago, and I haven't used my stethoscope since I was a school nurse many jobs ago. And then there's the problem of professional title. My four-year-old son knows I am a nurse, but also thinks I am a teacher and a doctor—other professions that will be represented at this special celebration. He thinks I am a doctor because he knows I graduated with my doctor of nursing practice degree last year, to much household fanfare. He thinks I am a teacher because for his whole life I have been teaching at a college of nursing.

And yet, I am still a nurse and want to participate in Community Workers Day as a nurse. I want to help break down the notion that to be a nurse means to be just one thing. For me, and for many other nurses, to be a nurse means to be many things at many times to many people. There are over 80 specialties for a professional nurse to choose from. I remember feeling, as a new graduate, as though the options were endless. I have taken advantage of the diverse opportunities, moving from direct care in a hospital to public health practice to working as a nurse educator. I am as grateful to the nurses who work in hospitals serving the sickest and most vulnerable patients as I am to the nurses who have chosen a path focused on policy and public service.

This past election season, public health and policy nurse Lauren Underwood (D-IL) was elected to the United States Congress, joining fellow nurses Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) and Karen Bass (D-CA), as well as nurse champion Donna Shalala (D-FL). Toward the end of the campaign, when it became clear he was losing the race, her opponent attempted to call into question Ms. Underwood's claims of being a nurse. Invoking a narrow definition of nursing as only bedside care, he seemed unaware of the essential work nurses across specialties do every day. His challenges were disputed by people across the political spectrum. This might have been because in 2018, for the 17th year in a row, nursing was ranked in a Gallup poll as the most honest and ethical profession. The public sees the profession of nursing, whatever the uniform or the practice setting, as one to be admired and respected.

According to 2017 Bureau of Labor Statistics data, over 60% of nurses are still concentrated in the hospital setting. While these roles will remain important, health care is changing. Patients leave hospitals sooner but with a greater number of chronic health issues that need to be addressed by nurses in nonhospital settings. The use of technology continues to expand, creating a need for more nurses to serve as informatics specialists. And there are health disparities that can only be answered through policy change. Nurses at legislative tables are essential. With the mounting demand for nurses across fields, the need for qualified and passionate educators to train and mentor the next generation of nurse leaders only escalates.

So how will I talk about my role on Community Workers Day? I will proudly share that I am a nurse, and that, like every nurse, I am focused on improving health. I get to do that by teaching nursing students. I will also give examples of nurses like Lauren Underwood and Lillian Wald, the community health pioneer who believed that the school was the ideal place for nurses to care for a community and who started the movement of school-based health care. And of nurses like Brenda, the nurse who cared for me when I delivered my daughter, providing me with high-quality, compassionate care. The opportunities for nurses are endless. And, of course, I will encourage these young children, as I urge anyone reading this, to think about how they can care for and encourage good health in the people in their lives.

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