If you have any nurse friends on social media, you probably already know when it is nurses week. And if you are a nurse, you know it is nurses week because management probably gave you free pizza. Joking aside, nurses are proud of their profession, and rightly so. Few professions are so intimately bound with the human experience, particularly human suffering.
In a March 2018 homily, Pope Francis addressed a group of nurses; for a timeless profession, his message can still serve as inspiration three years later. He recounted how a nurse once saved his life by arguing with a doctor about what treatment he actually needed. Here, we can find a call to bravery, to stand up for the vulnerable by advocating for our patients. We can use the knowledge that we gain from being with patients all day to give doctors a whole picture that they can’t always see. Of course, to be able to advocate necessitates that we are competent in our professional sphere in order to give our sound assessments and recommendations.
Pope Francis reminds nurses that their jobs require “a continuous – and tiring! – effort of discernment and attention to the individual person.” In a job obsessed with protocols, I love that he explains our work in terms of discernment while subtly hinting at the uniqueness of each person. Protocols help with safety and definitely have their place, but nursing is so much more than protocols and patients are so much more than the data in their charts. I remember walking into a patient’s room one day while providing home care and immediately sensing something was not right with him. He was alert and oriented, his vitals checked out fine except blood pressure, but still something seemed very wrong. I called the doctor about the blood pressure, and got instructions to change one medication dose. When I got off the phone, I called the family and explained the medication change but said I just had a feeling they should take him to the ER. They did and he ended up needing same day surgery that saved his life. If I had gone merely by paper and protocols, he probably would have died that day. Seeing the whole person, not just vitals, affirms that humans are not machines. Humans are unique and require us to be attuned to them, constantly discerning what they need in that present moment.
As Catholic nurses, we are afforded a privileged place in the world by being so close to those who suffer. Saint Gianna (a doctor) said, “Just as the priest can touch Jesus, so do we touch Jesus in the bodies of our patients… We have opportunities to do good that the priest doesn’t have.” It has been my experience that suffering opens people up to the supernatural. A lay nurse often silently accompanies people through suffering in settings in which religious are not always present. We can help people know they have dignity, help them to persevere through trials, and help them turn to God (and when ready, we are often the advocate for bringing the priest in for confession or anointing). Truly, it is a great calling to be a nurse!
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