National Nurses Week is celebrated in the U.S. during May 6th - May 12th, with International Nurses Day falling on May 12th. As a nurse, I will admit that I have never cared much for this week of recognition. Even in today's modern society, nurses still struggle with poor and dangerous working conditions, workplace violence and bullying, and pay inequality. Nurses have a tremendous amount of responsibility in coordinating care and ensuring patient safety, yet they are often overworked, underpaid, and expected to work under appalling conditions (for example, caring for an unsafe number of patients, asked to work without taking breaks, expected to transfer heavy patients and equipment without assistance, verbally abused by co-workers, etc). It always seemed disheartening to have a special week or day set aside for the celebration of nurses when so much more needs to be done to improve the working conditions of the profession. I would like to use this opportunity to bring awareness to the struggles that nurses working in the modern health care machine and why it should matter to those in the ancestral health community.
Modern nursing was founded on the principles of holistic care, long before "alternative" and "integrative" health became popular in our culture. Holism in healing was embraced in traditional societies throughout history until it fell out favor with the rise of medical science in the 20th century. Florence Nightingale, the founder of modern nursing, practiced and taught nursing with a focus on caring for the whole person and being mindful of environmental factors related to health. Several nursing theorists in the 1970s further developed the concept of holistic care and eventually, conventional medicine began to catch on in the decades that followed. Today, the actual practice of conventional nursing and medicine is far from what I would consider to be truly holistic in nature, but at least there is recognition of the need to treat the whole person.
Nurses are the health care providers that spend the most time with patients and families and they are responsible for coordinating care with all other members of the health care team. As such, they play a critical role in patient safety and ensuring good health outcomes. Poor nursing care and unsafe working conditions result in bad things happening, such as death, permanent injury or disfigurement, medication errors, and lapses in communication that have a direct impact on the care of the patient.
Speaking of working conditions, workplace violence is a huge issue in the nursing profession. There is an unfortunate culture of hazing and bullying within the profession and it can have a harmful impact on patient care. There is an expression in the profession, "Nurses eat their young", that resulted from pervasive nurse-on-nurse violence. My first job in nursing was working in a busy emergency department. I worked 12 hour shifts from 3pm to 3am and to say that it was a tough job is an understatement. I can remember being brand new, just off of orientation, when I caught the attention of one of the more senior nurses on the team that worked opposite shifts from me. She often reported off to me or I reported off to her during shift change and we would take over each others' patient assignments. She bullied and harassed me relentlessly and constantly made me question decisions that I had made regarding patient care (when there was absolutely nothing that I had done wrong). She would withhold small, but important details regarding patients that resulted in my job being more difficult. This nurse eventually ended up transferring to another department, but not before making me completely miserable and dread going into work every day. Being only 21-years-old at that time, I didn't know much about how to handle people. Of course, workplace violence in nursing doesn't just stop with senior nurses bullying newer nurses, but it can take many different forms. I can recall working at one job in which nurses that weren't part of the "in-crowd" were rewarded with the largest and most challenging patient care assignments day after day. There is also a concerning lack of basic respect and courtesy in communication among health care providers in most settings. I've gotten much better at navigating this with experience, but it still frustrates me that it is an issue that I have to diffuse or deal with at all. Shouldn't we have all learned how to play nicely together in kindergarten?
Nurses are the primary educators within the health care system and that places them in a distinct position to be able to educate patients and families about the numerous benefits of eating a real food, nutrient-dense diet and adopting other ancestral health principles. Because nurses also spend the most time with patients and families, they have a deeper understanding of what motivates patients, as well as the challenges and barriers that patients face when making lifestyle changes. Granted, we still have a lot of work to do to educate nurses and other health care professionals about the power of real food nutrition, but without getting nurses on board, the failing sick care system cannot be turned around.
On a personal note, I have had a love-hate relationship with the nursing profession since I started nursing school. There are times when I am very proud to be a nurse, especially in my work in hospice. It is such an honor and a privilege to be able to comfort patients and families and be present during one of the most significant events of their life. Being a hospice nurse, I've learned a lot about dying, but I've learned much more about living and I'm pretty certain that the average job doesn't impart such significant life lessons. I also love that I have had such varied experience during my nursing career. I've worked in direct patient care (in various settings), staff education, administration, patient safety, and quality. I've worked as an entrepreneur in the health and nutrition industry. I've had some pretty unique jobs. Some of them I enjoyed and then left only when I became bored or moved (which I've done a lot of in the last few years). I like variety and I can become bored quickly if I'm not continuously challenged at a job. Being able to change jobs frequently is a plus in the nursing profession. Some of the jobs that I have had I did not enjoy and I left after a short period of time. I've never understood nurses that dislike their jobs or specialties, but they are afraid to make a change. Unfortunately, that scenario is all too common and it contributes to an unpleasant working environment.
In my nutritional therapy work, I am incredibly grateful for my nursing experience and education. I have a deeper understanding of physiology and how to critically examine the health and nutrition literature, while maintaining an ancestral health perspective. I am able to work as a key member of my clients' health care team and help them to prioritize their health goals and make dietary and lifestyle changes that address the root causes of disease. In other words, I can actually deliver true health care to my clients, instead of sick care.
Much of what I don't like about nursing has to do with the harsh realities of our broken health care system. The health of our population continues to decline despite amazing advances in medical technology and pharmaceutical drugs. Our sick care system is designed to reward practitioners for caring for patients that have already developed disease, rather than promoting healthy lifestyles that prevent disease. Management of disease is focused on treating symptoms instead of addressing the root causes, which is a bit like putting a band-aid on a gaping wound.
Then there is the fact that health care is big business and there are a lot of issues that result when the delivery of care is all about the bottom line. Most health care organizations do strive to maintain the human component to care (or at least maintain the semblance of doing so), but care has definitely been eroded in the last few decades. Staffing shortages, lack of resources to do the job properly, pressure to discharge patients quickly, a focus on customer service versus quality of care...It's a lot to get into, but suffice it to say that our health care "system" is in a state of disaster. It can be demoralizing and frustrating to work within that chaos.
Nursing, no matter what the specific specialty, is a challenging profession. I sometimes think about if I had a child, how I would feel if she/he wanted to become a nurse. Would I encourage it along with a healthy dose of reality and lots of job shadowing? Or would I discourage it and gently guide the child toward a less demanding health profession? I'm not quite sure, although in the end I would want my child to choose a career that excites her/him and provides the means to accomplish her/his professional, and perhaps more importantly, personal goals. It's a bit of a cliche, but if there is one thing I've learned from spending time with dying people is that no one talks about how they wish they would have spent more time at work when they on their deathbed. What they do often talk about are regrets that they have, almost always involving relationships with their family, friends, or God (or higher power). They also talk about whether or not their life mattered and if they made a difference in the world. The nursing profession may have its struggles, but it has blessed me with the ability to make a profound difference in people's lives, to help turn around our failing health care system, and to spread the message about ancestral health. Nursing has allowed me to have a healthy work/life balance and it has given me the means to do the things that are important to me, such as spend time with my family, travel, live in a beautiful place, and pursue my passion for real food nutrition and ancestral health.
So, this Nurses Week, I am incredibly grateful and proud to be a nurse. Now, I'm back to work on making the world a better place-- one diet and lifestyle at a time!