International Nurses Day 2020: A voice to lead - Nursing the World to Health

This year marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Florence Nightingale, most famously known for transforming the field of nursing.

Donna O'Leary


Nursing the world during a pandemic

This year marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Florence Nightingale, most famously known for transforming the field of nursing. Her compassion and foresight brought nurses to the forefront and improved the quality of care in medicine. Every single nurse, regardless of role or title, carries his or her proverbial lamp in comfort to their patients.

On May 12, we’re celebrating International Nurses Day and this year, the celebration of our profession is more appropriate than ever. We embody science, compassion, well-being, leadership; we empower, educate and advocate; we listen, cry and rejoice; and most importantly, we’re there when you need us.

Someone to rely on

I joined Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany because I love what this company does. As a nurse educator, I work with multiple sclerosis (MS) patients. I walk with them, through every avenue of their struggles and help them manage their symptoms and transition to new medicines.

With the coronavirus outbreak, I now also volunteer on weekends as a triage nurse and speak to patients over the phone to assess their symptoms and severity of symptoms. Many people call in with upper respiratory issues, which during normal times, can be managed at home. However, with the coronavirus, if it goes bad, it can happen quickly so I need figure out if the caller needs to go to the hospital or if they can stay at home. I feel guilty that I’m not on the frontlines in the hospital wards, but I also know that I’m very much needed in this triaging role.  

Is it corona or a relapse or just me?

With the Covid-19 crisis reaching peak levels, people are hearing a lot of negative news all day, which makes them scared and worried about what might happen if they were to get infected. This is even more imminent with our MS patients. We have patients who delayed starting a new medication because of coronavirus restrictions and worry about relapsing. They need to be more cognizant that some MS symptoms, such as body aches, may unfortunately, mimic flu-like symptoms.

So, it’s about assuring patients and their families. Walking them through their symptoms and how they’re feeling is huge: You have a runny nose. Ok, could it be allergies? I have to be careful not to give them the “corona feel” with the questions I ask and feedback I provide. And at the same time, I have to balance the validity of their worries with what’s realistic. It’s the unknown that scares them, and we don’t have the answers. That’s the hard part.  

Managing more than just symptoms

It’s not only the medical or mental aspects that I deal with. The current environment dictates that we also educate our patients beyond their symptoms in order to stay safe. Patients don’t want to leave their houses and I totally agree. But the confines of their four walls may mentally collide and they may need to get out, if just for a change of scenery. However, location and access matters. If you’re in the mountains of Maine, you can easily go outside, but if you fall ill, you need to act immediately since you’re far from a hospital with specialized capabilities. In a city, if you have a balcony, you’re lucky, and clinics are close by and prepared. However, the risk of becoming infected is higher in populated areas, and as we’ve seen in this particular crisis, hospitals have become overwhelmed.  

Inspiring hope

Believe it or not, the one thing I’ve found hopeful is that I’ve never seen communities and companies coming together so quickly to help. In Massachusetts, where I’m based, a hockey equipment company has switched gears and is now making medical face shields, and you can see many more examples of this throughout the world. I also find it amazing that the pharmaceutical industry is working together to find a medicine, a vaccine – something. These are sure signs that the human factor has not gotten lost.

Together with a group of nurses and the fire department, I’ve been going house-to-house, delivering meals to seniors and doing wellness checks. These volunteers I work with are incredibly selfless. As of this writing in mid-April, the peak of the coronavirus outbreak has reached Boston. Starting April 25, I will be working at the Boston Hope Medical Center, a temporary 1,000-bed overflow hospital built within a week inside the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center. This massive effort led by Massachusetts General Hospital, the Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Boston Health Care for the Homeless, will focus on care of patients and people experiencing homelessness, who are infected but do not need to be hospitalized in an acute care facility. This reaffirms exactly why I became a nurse – to be able to jump in where needed.  

The physical you can get over, but the mental…

What’s most challenging as a nurse is the emotional exhaustion. It’s heart-breaking when I have to let people know that I don’t know what the situation is with their family members.

I recently spoke to a woman whose brother was diagnosed and on a ventilator. She had been trying to reach his primary care physician and when I connected with her, she was sobbing. She was in rough shape. I spent two hours on the phone with her and it was so emotional, hearing her just panicked and nervous for him. We were lucky to connect her to her brother through a 3-way video call with the hospital. A simple glimpse can go a long way to re-gaining some sense of relief and comfort.  

A lifeline for me

My family is awesome. We continuously challenge each other to do more, and this has trickled down to my own three boys (one in the navy, one in the marines and the youngest in high school), who also push each other to do better. They’re all very supportive of me, which allows me to help others during this exceptional time.

Having co-workers who can empathize is also critical. A couple of times a week, we get together online with other nurses, not only those dealing with the Covid-19 crisis, but also with the MS LifeLine Nurses team at EMD Serono, all of whom are amazing. These weekly video chat groups allow us to decompress and share war stories as well as happy moments – we always end with a happy moment. As much as we have to deal with the bad stuff, we also have to celebrate the victories.

And like hundreds of other nurses, caregivers and community members around the world, I’ll continue to do what I can, where I can, for anyone who needs me. There’s no question that I belong here. I’m proud that my many colleagues and I are able to make a difference.