Richmond Times-Dispatch Op-Ed -- THE HEALTH CARE CHALLENGE: Nurses Role Won’t Change, by HCA Capital Division President Margaret Lewis - Terre Haute Regional Hospital | Terre Haute, IN
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Richmond Times-Dispatch Op-Ed -- THE HEALTH CARE CHALLENGE: Nurses Role Won’t Change, by HCA Capital Division President Margaret Lewis

July 27, 2010

This Op-Ed piece originally appeared in the July 27, 2009 issue of the Richmond Times-Dispatch

THE HEALTH CARE CHALLENGE:
Nurses’ Role Won’t Change

Margaret G. Lewis
TIMES-DISPATCH COLUMNIST
Published: July 27, 2009

It was a Christmas day from yesteryear, and I was a nurse working in the emergency department at Chippenham Hospital. A patient arrived in the midst of a heart attack -- a bad one -- and she was slipping away. Three decades later I still remember the frantic look in her eyes as she clutched at my arm and said, "Promise me I won't die."

On Capitol Hill and across America, a great debate is now under way about reforming the way health care is delivered, administered, and funded. Its resolution may have sweeping consequences for generations of patients and families to come. But one thing health care reform will not change: the timeless role of nurses, and the bond they share with their patients.

Physicians have always held an exalted position in health care delivery. They always will – and deservedly so. Their clinical knowledge and skills are the capstone of patient care, and in Central Virginia we are fortunate indeed to have a physician community that ranks among the best in the nation.

But for many patients, a hospital experience is defined largely by nursing care. Nurses are at the bedside day and night, ministering to physical and emotional needs, answering questions, comforting those who find themselves in unwelcome circumstances and an unfamiliar place. It is no wonder that some patients develop a lifelong bond with the nurses who gave them care and support in the hospital.

AS FOR PATIENTS with serious medical problems – such as my Christmas patient from long ago – they very often face two powerful but competing emotions: fear and hope. It is against this backdrop that nurses are called upon to pass a test not only of their skills but, more profoundly, of their empathy.

I remember a young man in his 20s who knew he was dying of Hodgkin's disease. Friends and family members found it difficult to talk with him about his condition, so I lent him my ear and my sympathy as he spoke about what it was like to see his dreams, and his life, ending prematurely.

I remember a young mother who was clinically dead in the Intensive Care Unit, but who was literally returned to life thanks to the valiant efforts of a physician and his nursing team. The tears of joy that were shed by her family when she awoke – their look of gratitude and amazement – transcended mere words.

Every day in hospitals across this land nurses are caught up in intimate moments of life and death such as these, and in others that are far more ordinary but no less meaningful. They touch patients and families in ways no reality show, no prime-time drama, can begin to mimic. They show respect and dignity to the frail and the vulnerable in the best tradition of those whose names and actions preceded them, beginning with Clara Barton and Florence Nightingale.

NURSES ARE trained to measure and assess a situation quickly and accurately, to develop a plan of action, to execute it and then evaluate the outcome. I learned exactly those things from my instructors at John Tyler Community College and Virginia Commonwealth University, just two of many outstanding nursing schools in our state.

It is training such as this that stands nurses in good stead whether they choose to work in a hospital or physician practice, for a school or an employer, or in some other care-related capacity. And it's served as a foundation upon which I've built my own career managing hospitals and outpatient centers across four states.

If this seems a celebration of nurses and nursing, so it is. In my view, there is no more honorable or noble profession, no greater calling, no better way to earn a living while shaping lives in ways that are obvious and unseen.

Nurses are the glue that connects hospitals and patients, the stuff and substance which separates care that is great from care that is good, ordinary, or substandard. Reform may indeed change much about health care funding and delivery in America. Time will tell. But reform will not alter the vivid, vital relationship between nurses and patients, a bond that forever will exist between those who heal and those who turn to them in times of great need. And for that, we should all be grateful.


Margaret G. Lewis, a registered nurse, has worked as a bedside nurse, a nurse manager, and a nurse executive. She is now president of HCA's Richmond-based Capital Division, responsible for 17 hospitals and two dozen outpatient centers in Virginia, Indiana, Kentucky, and New Hampshire.

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