In praise of our nurses

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There’s an amusing story about a coroner who is called into work late one night because police found a body on the side of the road with no identification. The doctor does a thorough examination and announces to everyone in the room, “I don’t know who this woman is, but I know what she did for a living. She’s definitely a nurse.” Astonished at this pronouncement the sheriff asks, “How could you possibly know that?” The coroner says, “Easy. Her bladder is full, her stomach is empty, the soles on her shoes are worn out, and part of her backside is chewed off, no doubt from ungrateful patients. Trust me, that’s a nurse.”

Putting that joke aside, would you mind if we took a moment this month to talk about the truly unsung heroes that move among us in this world; our nurses? Recently the nursing community got justifiably ruffled when a state lawmaker in Washington State made the ignorant comment that nurses spent their days at work playing cards. Wow. Open mouth…insert foot. The comment brought an avalanche of criticism down on the woman’s head and inspired a few dozen memes that were “laugh-out-loud” funny. Putting aside her foolishness let’s chat seriously about how important nurses are to our everyday life.

A quick check on Google will tell you that there are nearly 30 million nurses in the world and about three million of them work in the United States. Compare that to the less than one million doctors who are currently practicing. That means if you, unfortunately, get sick and end up in the doctor’s office, urgent care or a hospital; the odds are very good that it will be a nurse who helps take care of you.

I’ve been fortunate in my life to not need hospitals for personal use, but I’ve certainly visited them plenty, and it is always the nurses who are the hands-on staff making the sick and broken feel better. What strikes me isn’t the fact that they do a wonderful job but that they do it tirelessly and with a smile. Have you been in a hospital lately? People are miserable, and you can’t blame them, after all, they are hurt or sick. How you walk into a room twelve times in a shift with a smile on your face knowing the person you are trying to help just wants to bite your head off (or backside) is beyond me.

Nurses do a dirty, impossible job that most of us would walk out of on the first day and the pay doesn’t come close to being adequate for the abuse they endure. So, you can understand when they get upset to hear someone who has never walked in their shoes making a snarky comment that they play cards all day.

Did I mention how smart they are and have to be? Back in college at H.V.C.C., I briefly dated a nursing student. The only way she could make time for me was if I sat with her and did ‘flash cards’ testing her medical knowledge. I remember reading some of the things she had to learn and memorize and asking if she didn’t make a mistake and enroll in medical school by mistake? I said to her once, “If you have to know all this, I think you should just be a doctor.” She looked at me and said, “No, I’m a nurse.”

She said those words with such pride, and it was justified. What nurses do is the very definition of “life and death.” Two years ago, I visited the NICU at a local hospital and saw those tiny lives that are entirely dependent on the nurses who care for them. I saw one nurse tending to a baby that couldn’t have weighed more than a couple pounds and asked her what her job was? She pointed at the helpless baby and said, “Her.” That was her entire role and existence, to take care of that one baby. I later learned from someone at the hospital that when that child was having a “touch and go” day, that nurse came in on her day off to be with the child.

I have a mother-in-law and sister-in-law who are nurses, so I’ve had a front row seat for that life. It’s nights and weekends and holidays and seeing things you can’t un-see and then coming home to a family that doesn’t quite understand why you are so tired or perhaps just very quiet tonight. It’s a tough career and calling and, yeah, nobody really does have time to play gin rummy. They are, as the joke implies at the top, missing meals and waiting to take a bathroom break because the patient always comes first.

It is very fashionable to thank a soldier for their service to this country, and I’m all for that. I’m also a big fan of thanking a nurse for what they do for all of us. Let’s face it; a nurse is likely the first face you’ll see when you enter this world and the last one, you’ll look at when you leave. We need them.

Since I started with a joke, it only makes sense that I should end with one too. What’s the difference between a nurse and a nun? Answer – a nun only serves one God.

John Gray is weekly columnist for the Troy Record and the Saratogian newspapers and news anchor at ABC 10 and FOX 23. He can be reached at johngray@fox23news.com.

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