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More than an honorable profession
By Patti Kealiher
Thursday, May 09, 2002 - Recently, a nursing colleague was making preparations for her daughter's high-school graduation. My friend asked her daughter if she planned on following her mom into the nursing profession.
"I can work with computers or I can empty bedpans," her daughter replied. "What do you think, Mom?"
Isn't that a sad reflection on the esteem in which young people hold nursing? As a registered nurse specializing in cancer care, I believe that what I do has such a profound and positive impact on my patients. And I do a heck of a lot more than empty bedpans.
I am someone my patients laugh and cry with, someone they confide in and trust. Likewise, my patients have a profound and positive impact on me. I celebrate their triumphs and become personally involved with their day-to-day struggles. I become a friend, and feel as though I'm part of their extended family.
I chose a career in nursing because I make a difference. When first diagnosed with cancer, my patients are anxious. I help them maintain a positive attitude by being upbeat and supportive.
I am their advocate. If my patient needs something - medication, access to community resources, or "mere" reassurance - I push until I get the very best for him or her. I am proud that, according to a recent Gallup Poll, the public believes nurses have the highest standards of honesty and ethics of any profession.
So why don't we think more of nurses? And why are we having such a hard time recruiting young people into the profession and retaining the nurses we have? Clearly, the top ranking is due, in part, to the caring role that nurses play in what often are life-altering times, such as the death of a loved one, the onset of a life-threatening illness or the birth of a child.
And yet we hear reports that school counselors and even some parents - pointing to the low pay, the long hours and the heavy workload - advise students as early as middle school to avoid the nursing profession. They may have good intentions, but they are doing all of us a tremendous disservice.
Right now, we need more nurses in operating rooms, critical care, oncology, trauma and neonatal care. The American Hospital Association reports that 126,000 nurses are immediately needed to fill vacancies in the United States.
Here in Colorado, we rank 37th in the nation in the number of nurses per capita, according to a 2001 report by the Health Resources and Services Administration. By 2020, the state's population will have grown by 20 percent and its older-than-65 population by 98 percent.
This boom will surely have an effect on the need for nurses. For example, despite breakthroughs in the treatment, early detection and prevention of cancer, two-thirds of new cases strike people over age 65. The number of new cancer cases diagnosed among the elderly is projected to more than double by 2030. According to the Oncology Nursing Society, the national nursing shortage is anticipated to peak in the next 10 years. It will have a significant adverse effect on our ability to deliver much-needed care to Medicare beneficiaries, especially those with cancer. Thankfully, nursing advocates are beginning to do something about it.
The Nursing Reinvestment Act is now before Congress. It's designed to allocate funds to address the nursing shortage. It would reimburse training costs and provide educational grants and scholarships
If you believe addressing the nursing shortage should be a priority, urge your local congressional representative to support the act.
I feel blessed to be an oncology nurse and to be on the front line of cancer treatment. Speaking for nurses throughout our community, I can tell you that I've learned never to underestimate the healing force and power of the human spirit.
But things have to change, or young people won't consider nursing as a profession. They'll never experience the strong bond that forms between a nurse and patient. They won't feel the satisfaction that comes from helping patients get through the diagnoses, treatments or any other challenges they may face.
And they'll never enjoy the feeling that keeps nurses in the profession, despite its hardships: At the end of the day, we know that we've made a positive difference in someone's life.
Patti Kealiher is a registered nurse specializing in oncology with Rocky Mountain Cancer Centers in Denver.