No, it’s not easy being a nurse in today’s medical environment. Many of us feel that the little autonomy we once had has been eviscerated with modules, protocols and checklists. We feel like we spend more time documenting what we do (or are supposed to do) than spending time actually doing it!
We leave work feeling “incomplete.” We work in an environment that seems to be a cauldron of hostility: frustrated and angry patients, cynical co-workers, pressured managers who, in turn, pressure us, and our own insecurities about what kind of a job we are doing. Did I remember to chart that last blood pressure? Did I thoroughly examine that wound? Was I rushing through that admission, perhaps missing a key element in my assessment?
We fear for our licenses, our patients, our futures. We worry about spending enough quality time with our kids, spouses, parents. We dissolve our fears in mindless television programs, internet surfing, social media, on-line shopping and the digital world that has overtaken the social constructs that once formed flesh and blood “community.”
Research has shown that human longevity and happiness are both enhanced by positive social interaction, a sense of belonging and the presence of a caring, loving community that we can turn to in time of need, and that we contribute to. The increasing depression that we observe in our society today—aside from the ailing economy—may very well be due to the social alienation so many of us feel due to the loss of the culture of community and its partner: solidarity.
Two thousand NYSNA members attended our 2017 Convention in October, where the concept of community and solidarity practically permeated the air in the Javits Center. Workshops focused on clinical issues as well as social issues: the social determinants of health. It’s naturally impossible to separate the dysfunctional health care system, climate change, poverty and violence, from the concept of wellness. The educational sessions are designed to not only teach but to forge stronger bonds among and between us.
The support we received from our union sisters and brothers was astounding, as speaker after speaker extolled the virtues of our profession, of our actions, of our union. It was made clear that we have an influence over legislation and elections—an influence that is growing. Our community allies’ participation at the booths and in our programs proved that the sum total of the union is far bigger than its parts.
The empathy and action exhibited by the hundreds of nurses who have volunteered for disaster missions in Texas, Florida and the Caribbean, or who have donated time and money to relief and recovery efforts, only further illustrates our own natural tendency to serve our society—our solidarity with people in trouble.
The Convention theme of Super Hero Defenders, while Halloweenish and entertaining—it’s so important to have fun—was no joke. The advocacy role that caregivers play in our world today is built around the defense of those in need, and the heroic and selfless work we do, on the job, and off the job. Nursing doesn’t end when we sign out at the end of a shift.
As I write this by lantern light in the mountains of Puerto Rico, the unpleasant odor of mosquito repellant only intoxicating these insect enemies, I reflect upon the things our team has seen during our time here, as we evolve our recovery network model.
I think about the mom bathing her little son under the trickle of probably toxic water that escaped from a makeshift pipe drilled into a rocky slope; about the long line of people standing in the hot sun with empty containers and bottles, patiently waiting their turn to fill them up with a weak hydrant stream; about denuded forests and once upon a time palm trees that look like shaved telephone poles; about FEMA—too little, too late—distributing single plastic water bottles and a bag or two of snack-sized cheetos to long lines of hungry, parched lipped US citizens; about the highways just…ending as roads are impassable; about the bridges that fell and the isolated people on the other side that have no egress from their destroyed houses; about the tarps that replace roofs; the power lines that look like a spaghetti dinner; the terror of approaching a highway intersection with no traffic lights.
I think about the suffering of an entire nation that no one in their right mind could deny was a direct result of the cruel and unnecessary warming of our planet and the imposed austerity on a country, indebted to hedge fund vultures, with a fiscal oversight board that saw repaying the super-wealthy was more important than maintaining an electrical grid, a water supply system and a transportation infrastructure.
Then I am reminded of other things: the 300 NYSNA members who have already volunteered for medical missions; the 350 AFL-CIO members who flew here shortly after María departed, leaving her devastation, and hit the ground running; the hospital workers who arrived with their teams to areas in need; the resilient, generous and creative people of Puerto Rico and the unions: the Federation of Teachers (FMPR) and their work brigades, the General Workers Union (UGT) and their efforts to form care centers with us, the Electrical Workers (UTIER) working around the clock to repair power lines, and so many others, as well as communities, individuals, mayors, seniors, children and families who, even as they suffered, offered what little they had to neighbors, to rebuild, to survive.
I have heard that nearly 100,000 people have already fled (life without electricity, cell phone signals, water and communication is not easy) and that more will leave. It is no migration—it is exile. I hope many will return. There is a saying here: Puerto Rico se levanta! Puerto Rico will rise again.
We are delivering care to people suffering untold harm, who in spite of it all, are humble, gracious, generous, teaching us as we treat their infections and wounds. This is community. This is solidarity. This is nursing.