The nurses at Emory Hospital who are caring for the two U.S. Ebola patients around the clock are not immune from fear. No nurses are. The truth stares us in the face every time an indiscriminate killer like Ebola or any horrific strain goes viral.
Nurses are so often the first to reach the front lines of an epidemic, the first to recognize and try to relieve patient pain and the first to get to work healing the sick regardless of the challenges and obstacles. Whether it's in Atlanta or Africa, nurses are right now at the bedside dealing with the danger of a disease spread through contact with blood, vomit, saliva and diarrhea. So why on earth would nurses be there?
Because that is nursing: sometimes dirty and dangerous, always physically demanding, and rewarding as hell. We were never promised it would be easy, or safe. They didn't tell us that because nurses don't wait to be told. We are called, we act and we save lives.
Ever since Florence Nightingale, "The Lady With the Lamp," took it upon herself to care for the sick and the wounded in the Crimean War in the 1850s, nurses have proven their value and their valor where care is most daunting and risky. More modern examples include the MASH nurses in the Korean War and those in the HIV epidemic of the United States, before advanced treatments, when AIDS was a death sentence. In the '80s, an accidental needle stick or a drop of tainted blood reaching an open paper cut could have serious repercussions. How about polio? Or cholera? Or smallpox?
Physicians, nurses and other health care professionals make powerful life-saving teams in hospital settings across the globe. Today, nurses are full partners and leaders in the health care process. But the fact is their role in patient care is unmatched. Because of their level of patient engagement, they are the bridge between patients and the health care system, the moral compass for patients' rights and privacy.
Hopefully, one day soon, nurses, physicians and public health researchers will have beaten Ebola. Unfortunately, as history has shown us, new epidemics will emerge, perhaps far more dangerous. Whatever comes, nurses will be there, at the front lines, at the bedside, caring for the sick and the most contagious. We will not do our duty without precautions or fear, but we will do it.
This is not crazy. This is nursing.
Patricia M. Davidson, Baltimore
The writer is dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Nursing.
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