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The Year of the Nurse and Midwife hasn’t really turned out the way any nurse I know (including myself) would have imagined.

You thought the NCLEX was hard? What about the gripping fear that comes from realizing the way you’re being asked to use your N95 would’ve resulted in you failing out of nursing school clinicals? Or the horror you feel about being unable to give patients what they most need: a loved one to hold onto as they transition out of this life? Or the overwhelming anxiety that you might carry an infectious and potentially deadly disease home to your spouse, your children, or your aging parents?

Turns out COVID-19 is the pop quiz none of us ever wanted to take.

While we love the free pizzas, the 7 p.m. applause and the increased visibility, we nurses also see what so many outside of our profession don’t. Nurses witness firsthand the unacceptable toll this pandemic has taken on health care workers, with more than 900 dead in the United States so far—and even more horrifying, COVID’s toll on health care workers of color, who make up 62 percent of that fatality list.

We know that while the data collected are woefully inadequate so far, this disease is having a heartbreakingly disproportionate impact on our patients who are Black, Indigenous, and people of color.

Beth Toner, RN, MJ, MSN
Beth Toner, RN, MJ, MSN

Those of us who chose this profession to make a difference in others’ lives are willing to work hard to ease the suffering of others. We know our patients. We know they are far more than the condition that landed them in our care. It is food insecurity, inadequate housing, low wages, and unreliable (or no) transportation that have as much effect on people’s health as the medication they take and the health care they receive.

Yet this pandemic has shown us just how fragile this system we call health care is. How can we take care of patients if we can’t even take proper care of ourselves?

Here’s the good news: There’s never been a better time for nurses to make themselves heard and push hard for the changes we have been calling for since, well, forever. The National Academy of Medicine is hard at work on the next Future of Nursing report and it will focus on how nurses can be supported as they address the problems in communities that prevent so many from living their healthiest lives.

A new report from the WikiWisdom Forum—which spent nearly six months listening to nurses across the nation discuss the heartbreaking conditions on the COVID front lines—has made recommendations on how to avoid a similar tragedy in the next pandemic, which will surely come. The report calls for everyone—policy makers, the public, and nurses themselves—to listen, protect and support nurses.

I’ve heard similar themes from the nurses who playing starring roles on SHIFT Talk, a new podcast supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, that addresses bullying, PTSD and preceptorship in our profession. The host and guests tackle tough topics and point out that the pandemic has only made worse the problems nurses have been facing for a long time.

But again, there are a few bright spots. Nurses are so resilient. Not only will we get through this, we will, I believe, get through this stronger. We have solutions to the problems the nation’s health care system faces. We know what we, and our patients, need.

It’s time to speak up boldly. It’s time to fight the injustices so many of our patients—and so many of us—face. It’s time to stare down systemic racism within our profession. It’s time to bring a variety of voices to the table. It’s time to make the shift and make this a Year of the Nurse we will remember for all the right reasons.

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Beth Toner, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation
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