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‘It’s important to feel valued and heard’: Maryland nurses create Facebook group to unite during coronavirus

When Stacey Warther clicked the blue “create” box on her computer screen, she had no idea the world she was inviting thousands of nurses across Maryland to join.

Warther, a part-time corporate wellness nurse, had no idea how desperate nurses would be for someone who understood the new realities of what it meant to be fighting the seemingly never-ending battle of the coronavirus.

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High anxiety from the difficult balance of personal and professional life, frustration with lack of authorized personal protective equipment, even yearning for shoe recommendations to release the pressure of increasingly long hours standing up, flood the Maryland Nurses Unite ASAP Facebook group every day.

“It’s become a sounding board for people who are scared,” Warther, 59, said.

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When Maryland Nurses Unite ASAP group was created March 17, there were only 20 members, mostly nurse friends of Warther. Within one day, the group grew to 1,000 members; as of Monday, there are more than 13,000 members.

“What became more apparent is that [the coronavirus pandemic] was evolving and the nurses on the front lines needed support,” said co-founder Colleen Cunningham of Clarksville. “[Warther] and I knew that nurses needed a place where they could go and be heard and feel valued.”

However, this wasn’t what Eldersburg resident Warther and Cunningham, 55, originally had in mind. Cunningham, a Johns Hopkins Home Care Group nurse, and Warther wanted to create a space for Howard and Carroll County residents to ask nurses questions about the coronavirus.

“Here we are in the middle of a pandemic. I thought I was going to be helping people with food and other resources, but here I am helping with medical resources,” Warther said. “We thought [the Facebook group] would be nurses who had more time on their hands, [but] the page kind of morphed into a complete platform of what’s going on on the front lines.”

As it became clear the group would be a space for nurses to honestly reflect about the current realities, ask difficult ethical questions and discuss best practices among themselves, Cunningham and Warther created a second group for residents to share resources and volunteer opportunities and ask questions surrounding the pandemic: Maryland Communities Unite ASAP.

“It’s really important to verbalize fear and anxiety right now,” Cunningham said. “Social media has created this incredible and valuable tool where we can come together and talk about things in real time. This will be a valuable site for a very long time.”

Ami Ayers, 41, works as an assistant nurse manager in the emergency room at Sinai Hospital in Baltimore and was one of the original members of the group.

“I have been watching and learning from the group,” Ayers said. “I like the idea that this is people in my [geographic] area, my network, my local hospitals.”

Ayers, an Ellicott City resident, said the group has brought her new ideas that she can use in her facility. She’s also seen nurses post about ideas that didn’t work in their facilities, and she said now she’s less likely to try them.

“It’s multipurpose for me. [It’s helping me] personally and professionally both,” Ayers said. “[Maryland Nurses Unite ASAP] allows that safe area for nurses to vent.”

Cunningham said she never could have imagined the demand for a resource like this.

“This is obviously something nurses have needed for a long time,” she said, tearing up. “It’s important to feel valued and heard. You don’t necessarily get [that] through your employer.”

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Warther and Cunningham, who both worked on the front lines during the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, frequently use war metaphors to describe working during the pandemic and emphasize in the Facebook group the need to be goal-oriented.

“What are we looking to accomplish? We were going to help hold up the back line while the front line has to go into battle,” Warther said.

By providing the space to strategize and prepare for their next shift, Warther said nurses across the state are helping to hold up the back lines.

“We knew there were going to be gaps and barriers, but we had no idea to the extent of what [the coronavirus] was going to do to our health care system,” she said.

The women also said the group is providing a space for necessary ethical discussions surrounding the current health care system. Warther said the group is not a place for politics or fear-mongering; instead, it’s an open forum for nurses to discuss what works and what doesn’t.

“They’re really exposing some of their feelings to strangers as if they know each other. Talking about anxiety and PTSD, [asking], ‘Does anyone feel this way? I feel like I’m losing it.’ They’re talking each other off the ledge,” Warther said.

"They give each other really good advice. Their vulnerability is what is building their courage at the same time.”

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