Honoring the quiet dedication of nurses

We’re heading into the winter season, which means we’re also heading into its dreaded counterpart—cold and flu season.  And with all the sniffles and coughs comes the legions of nurses, always ready to suit up in scrubs and take care of others.

I’d bet that every reader can think of at least one nurse who they know personally, or who has brought them back to good health.  I’ll always have a soft spot for our neighbor Janise, who was constantly “on-call” to answer my mom’s worried phone calls—usually related to my accident-prone younger brother.

One of the pleasures of my job at ONE has been getting to travel and meet many other nurses in very different contexts, half-way around the world.  While the politicians and the celebrities we meet leave quite an initial impression, the stories of the nurses we meet reverberate in my head long after I return.  These are the people who are quietly dedicating their lives to ensuring the health of their communities; they’re doing it with humility, good humor and few accolades.

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There are nurses like Sister Suzan in South Africa, who I met in 2011. She’s worked at Bara Hospital on the outskirts of the Soweto slum for 35 years — through apartheid, through the emergence of the AIDS pandemic, through the previous government’s refusal to allow treatment for AIDS.

When AIDS first hit Soweto, mothers who were pregnant couldn’t get drugs to prevent the spread of HIV to their babies or to protect themselves; she watched many patients die, and frequently provided comfort in their final moments. In the early 2000s, only a single dose of somewhat ineffective treatment was available, and as many as 50 percent of babies were born HIV-positive. Now, all mothers who come to Bara can receive treatment and counseling services from Sister Suzan and her staff, and rates of mother-to-child transmission of HIV have been reduced to less than 5 percent across Soweto.

There are others, like nurse Ernestina in Lesotho, who I met in 2012. Lesotho is a beautiful, remote and rugged country.  Known as the mountain kingdom, many citizens must walk hours through brutal terrain—literally up and down mountains, in some cases—to access AIDS treatment and other health services.

Ernestina, who like Sister Suzan has been at this work for decades, knows that ensuring patient follow up is nearly as important as the patient’s initial visit to the clinic itself.  So, she sets aside hours most days to trudge up and down the mountainside, providing consultations and medicines as she goes.  She now walks with a crutch and a noticeable limp—a byproduct, she told me, of her “hikes”—but rather than using her injuries as an excuse for retirement, she simply pushes on.

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There are so many others like Suzan and Ernestina with whom I’ve had the fortune to meet.  Nurses in Kenya doing sutures by candlelight when the power goes out. Nurses in Zambia working long past close of business because they know their patients have queued for hours in sweltering heat. Nurses in Ghana, whose counseling sessions have ensured thousands of mothers have given birth to healthy babies. Each going beyond the call of duty, often working in conditions we would turn our noses up at in the United States, while continuing to deliver the highest quality of care.

The lessons I’ve learned from these women are one reason why I’m so excited to be attending Vanderbilt University’s Nursing Leadership in Global Health Conference in February 2014.  I can’t wait to share the stories of nurses I’ve met around the world, as well as some of their ingenious solutions to delivering care in the tough environments in which they work.  But I am also excited to be at the intersection of other nurses and practitioners, advocates and policy makers—each determined to improve the health care that’s delivered for patients, from moms in Mumbai to babies in Bamako to adolescents in Albequerque.

Their registration is open now—and I’d love it if you’d join us!  Visit the conference website now for more details, or share a story of a nurse who has impacted you or your family in the comments below.