President's Column: Heroes

Nov 04, 2020

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I come from a family of veterans. My father was a Navy medic at Normandy on D-Day and on Okinawa, and he served in Korea. My mother was an Army nurse, awarded a Bronze Star for her wartime service in Korea and "extraordinary courage in time of peril."

My parents are my heroes, not only for a single act of bravery or their military service, but for lives of service. But, if you asked them, neither would have called themselves a hero. As a veteran myself, I would tell you, "It was my privilege to serve." The refrain you hear from veterans is that they're just doing their job.

This year nurses are being heralded as heroes. Murals have been painted and nurses have been celebrated on the news and TV ads. These accolades are well deserved, but what I hear most often from nurses is what we hear from veterans: "I was just doing my job." The way we stood up, stepped forward and provided care and hope for patients, families and each other are not isolated heroic acts - this is who we are and what we do every day.

Recently there have been thoughtful discussions about the risk of calling nurses heroes. A compelling article by Lewis paints a much different picture of what being a hero means and the toll, including guilt, it can have on care providers. This article discussed a strategy developed for veterans that may support healthcare providers. The "Listen to a Veteran!" project creates a space where veterans tell their stories while another person listens silently and intently without judgment or use of a hero's lens. Research found that this project was transformative for the veteran and the listener. What might this look like, to listen silently with 100% attention and without judgment to the stories of a nurse with whom you work?

Scholarly papers by Cox and Stokes-Parish further underscore the consequences of this hero/angel narrative, including lofty, unreasonable expectations. The articles advocate for expansion of the conversation to include a discussion of the public and organizational responsibility to care for the caregivers and to recognize nurses as highly educated professionals. We are not simply individuals who willingly face danger as a part of our job.

This dialogue is a reminder that, as we face the uncertainty of another surge, nurses do not have unending superpowers that allow us to walk unscathed through this landscape. The conditions that require us to continue to be heroic cannot be normalized, such as PPE shortages, inappropriate staffing, and skyrocketing burnout and moral distress.

When I look at the characteristics of heroism like passion, conviction, determination, honesty, moral integrity, inspiration, humility, bravery, and courage, I admit I do consider nurses heroes. You demonstrate these core attributes daily and they are heroic.

I recently found inspiration in the words of writer and artist, Mary Anne Radmacher:

"Some days there aren't any trumpets, just a lot of dragons...Courage doesn't always roar. Sometimes courage is the quiet voice at the end of the day saying, 'I will try again tomorrow.' And sometimes courage does roar, 'Show up, speak up, stand up. TODAY.'"

November is a time to honor veterans. It is also a time of thanksgiving. What can the healing power of gratitude and meaningful recognition look like for nurses? AACN has a safe space for you to tell your stories, and you can also record it through StoryCorps to be archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. Our gratitude includes listening to your words without judgment, honoring your experience and together moving toward a hopeful future.

Tell me who you want to recognize and thank them by writing to me at