Having recently returned from sitting bedside with a surgical patient at a local hospital for two straight weeks, I can faithfully attest to some basic truths about modern medicine. First, it’s not Club Med. In many ways, it’s like having an inquisitive, yet psychotic, toddler armed with a blood pressure cuff, an instant-read thermometer and a needle staring at you 24/7. The moment the little guy sees you might start to be relaxing, he’s certain to poke and prod you with one or more of the above. Second, the food is terrible. It’s a bad sign when the medical staff can’t hide their disdain. (Never, ever order the vegetarian lasagna. Ever. You’ll thank me later.) And finally, through the blurry sweep of major surgery, intensive care, dozens of intravenous bags, lots and lots of drugs, doctors, physician assistants, residents and techs, the pain, the frustration and tedium, you will soon discover an unchanging truth: Nurses are the greatest thing going in the hospital. God bless them.
Make no mistake, I was not predisposed to praising nurses. They don’t run in my family. They aren’t among my closest friends. Until recently, I’d mostly thought of them as kind of minor functionaries in the context of a primary care provider. They put you on the scale, take your height, check your blood pressure and warn you that the doctor is coming soon. But in a hospital, their impact is profound. They are the ones checking on the patient on a regular basis, they are the first to perceive changes, good or bad, in the recovery process. They deal with the mundane but must also recognize the alarming. And they are there for 12-hour shifts. You may see your surgeon once or twice a day, or a resident once in a while. But the nurses and techs are your caregivers, your lifeline, your comfort, your allies.
In case you haven’t heard, there’s a nursing shortage going on. It’s thought that increasing demand for all types of nurses — caused in part, by an aging U.S. population and expanded access to health care as well as retirements, turnover and burnout in the nursing profession — have hit many communities quite hard. Government and the health care industry are working on solutions including expanded recruitment and training slots. Even billionaires are contributing to nursing schools on a regular basis and funding scholarships. But as someone who has just left ground zero (well, a ground zero anyway), and who asked each and every nurse what should be done to address the crisis, I can tell you they all had the exact same thought: Pay nurses what they deserve. See? Sometimes, health care problem are complex. Other times, they are actually quite straightforward.
I don’t claim to be an expert in these matters. I know health care dollars are precious, and the business of running a hospital is mind-bogglingly complex with daily decisions that can literally mean life or death. I am grateful to all who cared for my spouse, from the folks who cleaned the floors to the individual who ran through several wards to find her medication after the pharmacy had closed. But I must tell you that as I hovered over my wife after brain surgery, an enterprise for which we were advised to get our wills written and filed away, it was almost always a nurse who sought to make the situation better. And so we got to know them very well.
Many of these nurses admitted their jobs could be stressful but loved the work anyway. Some are what’s known as “travel nurses” having moved to Baltimore from all over the country after signing short-term contracts for higher pay. Many were quite young and only had a few years of hospital experience. To a man and woman, they fretted about making ends meet, something that the surgeons and administrators in this particular hospital probably don’t have to worry about much.
Listen, I know there are good nurses and some who probably aren’t so gifted. Every profession works that way (one even imagines somewhere in the hospital basement there’s a line cook who might have made a decent vegetarian lasagna once before they chose a life of culinary torture). And no doubt the United States needs to expand its nursing school capacity. But how about doing what nurses do regularly and actually listen to the people involved? The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics has estimated that the median registered nurse pay in this country is $77,600 a year or roughly $37.31 an hour. From actuaries to veterinarians, there are plenty of college-educated professions on the BLS inventory that pay much better — but few of such consequence to those ailing, stressed-out and, yes, somewhat frightened patients and their husbands who have never before spent two days in a hospital, let alone two weeks.
Give the nurses a major raise. You’ll be glad you did, I promise.
Peter Jensen is an editorial writer at The Sun; he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.