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Gumption, Courage, and the Indomitable Spirit of Nurses

Diane M. Goodman, BSN, MSN-C, APRN

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August 03, 2021

Since the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic began, adjectives aplenty have been used by the media to describe attributes of nurses and the nursing profession. New York City has labeled nurses "heroes" and clapped for them every evening as they changed shifts. My mother, bless her heart, had a habit of depicting hard work by an old-fashioned term. "Gumption" was what her generation labeled the ability to return to a course of action that required backbreaking labor and heartbreaking commitment.

Merriam-Webster defines "gumption" as "enterprise" and "initiative" (and dialectically as "horse sense" or "common sense"), but it has evolved to characterize more than that. Today it also means confidence and courage, attributes we expect from nurses who have grown weary from a pandemic that has expanded to claim more than 602,000 lives by the week ending July 24, 2021, and has also evolved to include one of the most dangerous respiratory mutations in a generation, the Delta variant.

Nurses Are Hardy, but This Has Been More Than Even They Expected

Most nurses can account for a shift (or several) when they have offered to work or clocked in when they were physiologically unable to do so. According to one survey, almost 90% of staff members reported going to work during a 5-month period with a respiratory illness. I proved to be no different.

I once went to work when I had a horrendous pain in my side, believing it was a pulled muscle or simply an ache from sleeping in a cramped position. Although I was dizzy and uncomfortable throughout the day, I wanted to complete my shift. Several peers, including my immediate supervisor, brought me fluids and snacks, believing I needed hydration. When I was finally able to leave, imagine my horror upon learning the pain was due to bilateral pulmonary emboli!

I spent my birthday in the intensive care unit being anticoagulated.

But nurses would describe that working sick is far from the worst of their job. According to a Business Insider article, Megan, a nurse from Ohio, said that struggling to keep from crying after the death of a patient is one of the hardest aspects of a nurse's job. Dealing with the death is tough but keeping the tears inside and the "explaining" — that is the real struggle. Another nurse, from Pennsylvania, who wanted to remain anonymous, described further about the experience of nurses. The work of nurses, she said, is a chosen profession. This is something that she and others like her want to do. Nursing is not a step on the road to becoming a physician, as many might believe, or as nurses are often questioned about their vocation.

But nurses want to be nurses and take care of patients. What seven ICU nurses had to say about taking care of COVID patients was profound in a Washington Post article. The amount of death and isolation was overwhelming for them. They needed to share and tell the stories of patients that died alone, without a family member by their bedside, such as a mother who merely wanted her son to sing to her. They described being without adequate words to prepare family members for the sight of lifesaving equipment that was in use to keep loved ones alive for days, weeks, and months while the virus ravaged organs and cells. They were full of pain and suffering themselves, working extended hours without breaks for meals.

In the same  Washington Post article, Kori Albi, 31, an intensive care nurse and unit supervisor at Saint Alphonsus Regional Medical Center, wanted to discuss how many of her staff and hospital physicians were falling ill to the virus. She verbalized feeling safer at work than going out into the community because work was a safer place. Patients with COVID were in negative-pressure isolation rooms. At work, nurses knew who had COVID. Her staff had adequate PPE for protection from the virus. The community was more frightening because of the unknown. This took a toll on providers.

The pandemic is not over. In parts of the US, particularly where vaccination rates are low, hospitalizations and caseloads are rising. Emotionally and physically exhausted nurses will be called into action again. Will they be able to roll up their sleeves and answer the call? How much more can be asked of them?

"Gumption." That indomitable spirit of nursing, the adjectives that are indescribable, the heroes.

We will be needing them all over again.

Share your working-while-sick story in the comments.

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About Diane M. Goodman
Diane M. Goodman, BSN, MSN-C, APRN, is a semi-retired nurse practitioner who works from home contributing to COVID-19 task force teams and dismantling vaccine disinformation, as well as publishing in various nursing venues. During decades at the bedside, Diane worked in both private practice and critical care, carrying up to five nursing certifications simultaneously. Yet she is not all about nursing. She is equally passionate about her dogs and watching movies, enjoying both during time away from professional activities. Her tiny chihuahuas are contest winners, proving that both Momma and the dogs are busy, productive girls!

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