My history with nurses goes way (way) back. Well, to birth. I don’t mean the nurses who helped deliver me although I certainly appreciate them. I mean my mother, who was a nurse for many years. I remember her starched uniform and hat, her pins, her compassion. I remember the way people later in life would tell me how kind she had been to them.

When I look over cardiac rhythms I am reminded of the fact that mom was an early telemetry nurse. I began seeing assorted rhythm strips on laminated cards, lying about our house, when I was quite young.

When I was attending Marshall University and had decided to try and go to medical school, I worked for an orthopedic group as a cast-tech. I worked alongside the nurses by bringing patients into exam rooms, taking histories and taking notes for the physicians. I removed sutures and cleaned wounds, scheduled surgeries, removed casts and built splints. The nurses taught me how to be part of the team, and about what they had to do on a daily basis in both patient care and working with physicians.

When I later began medical school at West Virginia University I was well prepared. I was able to show respect to nurses on every unit where I rotated. I learned to listen to them, be kind to them and to bring them candy and gum. (It matters, I’m serious!) I never saw them as lesser than physicians, but as co-workers.

This pattern of wonderful relationships continued through my residency training at Methodist Hospital of Indiana, where I continued to work with flight nurses and other nurses in the emergency department. I worked with nurses in the critical care and trauma units, pediatrics floors, the obstetrics unit, the operating room and all the rest. I learned from them and I taught them what I knew as well. I tried to make them laugh. We helped each other in some very stressful times, at the bedside of patients as well as in the back of the helicopter, or on the road-side at the scene of accidents.

When I finished residency (30 years ago this Summer) I began to practice medicine at Oconee Memorial Hospital in Seneca, SC. Our busy little department was truly an oasis of patient care. In part because my group of partners, the members of Blue Ridge Emergency Physicians, were all amazing physicians. But also because our nurses were smart, passionate and caring. We did amazing things in that little hospital where many lives were saved because of the diligence of those incredible men and women who dedicated themselves to nursing.

The nurses became family to my wife and me. They were there to welcome us to the area, to recommend churches, realtors, mechanics and restaurants. They were there to help deliver our children. They were treasured members of our greater social network. This was a no small comfort to two young people who starting out and were completely new to the area, six hours from parents and home.

Later, when my wife had a very serious bout with cancer, the nurses stood by us once again and were fiercely devoted; to us as a family and to her as a patient. They have been by our side when our adult children had medical issues and two years ago when my father-in-law nearly died on the ventilator with COVID.

About ten years ago I decided to make a career change and began to do what we call ‘locum tenens’ (translated ‘to hold the place of). That is, to fill in at hospitals without sufficient physicians. I traveled to various facilities and states, some near and some far. Along the way I have worked in some 30 hospitals over the past decade. While I remember many of the physicians I worked with, I have incredible memories of the nurses who welcomed me into their hospitals and were kind to this relative stranger in their midst. They helped me to navigate hospital policies, politics, regional transfers and explained to me which patients had which chronic problems in the days before a more wide-reaching use of electronic records. They also fed me and frequently let me sleep on slow nights.

Over my many years of medical practice I have seen what nurses face, and the kindness, humor, skill and equanimity they bring to the patients in their care. They face death and tragedy, and offer comfort; then cry in the break room. They face verbal abuse and violent assault, go home appropriately angry then come back the next day, dedicated to the people who need them.

They help patients maintain their dignity by changing and cleaning them. A thing we so often consider a menial task, but which is profoundly important and full of grace for the vulnerable.

They powered through a life changing pandemic, working with limited knowledge and resources, and continued to come back to work in the full knowledge that they might die of the disease they were fighting against. Or might take it home to their loved ones.

They sometimes question their life choices and look for better situations, but more often than not they realize that their place is with the sick and dying and realize to their dismay and frustration that walking away is harder than they imagined.

They are often dismissed and devalued by employers, but still they show up and do the right thing, emotionally and physically exhausted from both work and family life. But when things are going badly, they press on, getting the medications, starting CPR, holding the hands of family members, bringing food and blankets, helping one another and the occasional itinerate physician who shows up in their midst.

The nurses I have known struggle with ‘imposter syndrome,’ with depression and anxiety, with difficult physicians and difficult spouses and children. They struggle with substance abuse and sadly, with thoughts of suicide.

But they never stop being the incredible professionals that the situations require.

So to all of you who have taught me, worked with me, guided me, helped my family or shared a midnight snack with me…

Thank you. Thank you so much.

And a Happy Nurses’ Week to you all!


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