New Hope and Healing From an Ancient Tale

Feb 21, 2023

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Our profession needs some healing. My hope is that vehicles such as ‘The Nurse Antigone’ create a space where nurses can begin that healing process.

Cynda Rushton

In November 2022, nurses from two AACN chapters participated in a Zoom performance of "The Nurse Antigone," a dramatic virtual reading of Sophocles' "Antigone." The online performance featured actors from "The Bold and the Beautiful," "Orange Is the New Black" and "The Wire," plus a chorus of front-line nurses. The teleplay helped frame powerful, guided discussions about the unique challenges nurses face, generating compassion, awareness, connection and much-needed healing. As an international leader in ethics and moral resilience, Cynda Rushton — a professor and endowed chair at Johns Hopkins School of Nursing and 2022 recipient of AACN's Marguerite Rodgers Kinney Award for a Distinguished Career — worked with Theater of War Productions to bring this classic to the virtual stage.

How did "The Nurse Antigone" begin?

I met Bryan Doerries [art director of Theater of War Productions] 10 years ago when he was working with the Greek tragedies on end-of-life care. I was involved in palliative care efforts, so it was an intriguing format for me. I followed his career and through a variety of connections that we shared, we reconnected near the beginning of the pandemic. At that time, Bryan had been using the Greek tragedies with military veterans to help them process their experiences of being in the theater of war. It gave them a voice in a way that felt safe.

We started working together on a series of performances of Greek tragedies for interprofessional audiences; there were about 10 beginning in June 2020. I'm always an advocate for my profession, so I kept saying to Bryan, "There are 4 million nurses in this country who are suffering. We have to do something." And I might be described as persistent, so I didn't let up until he was able to get funding to do 12 performances of "The Nurse Antigone," and we collaborated to launch this series in March 2022.

Not surprisingly at all to me, "The Nurse Antigone" has been a powerful vehicle for nurses to share what they've carried during the pandemic, what I would call the moral residue of all they've had to confront: the hard choices, the tragedy and also the incredible victories in the midst of all the adversity.

Did you anticipate how deep the conversation after the performances would be? For example, did you foresee nurses talking about their feelings of betrayal?

What's unique about this approach is that it's a third-person experience. You use these ancient words to reflect your own experiences in a way that feels less vulnerable. Yet, the themes are so present for nurses.

During the pandemic, so many people, and nurses in particular, were in survival mode. They were trying to make it through a difficult time. They didn't have the space or the invitation to pause, consider or reflect on what had happened. Nurse Antigone has to make hard choices that end in death, which is true for some nurses during COVID-19. How do you do the right thing?

I wasn't surprised by the betrayal narrative. On one hand, nurses were revered as heroes. Then, as time went on, one of the betrayals that was particularly difficult was when patients and families turned against them. That cut deep. Really deep. Add to that, feeling that leaders had not supported them. It just accumulates to a point where it's hard to carry.

These themes seem like they transcend the pandemic. Will there be more performances in 2023?

We would like to expand our efforts. Partnering with professional organizations such as AACN has worked well to be able to invite nurses when they're ready to be part of the conversation. What we've heard from nurses who performed or were panelists is that the experience is profound. Many have said, "I felt silenced. No one was listening. ['The Nurse Antigone'] has given me an opportunity to feel supported, heard and understood in ways I have not had."

We need more funding, but I believe that when you're doing the right thing, resources show up. So I'm putting that out there as an intention.

What else have you heard from nurses who performed?

Many of them have talked about how beneficial it was to be with other nurses, to know that they weren't alone. Another thing is that our audiences include the public, and many said they were unaware of what was happening to nurses and asked for ways to support them.

Our profession needs some healing. My hope is that vehicles such as "The Nurse Antigone" create a space where nurses can begin that healing process.

I want them to make good decisions for themselves about how they can continue in the profession, even if they can't stay in their current role. It takes a long time to be a competent critical care nurse, and when we lose that brain trust, we have lost some very, very important resources.

We've got to stand together as a profession in solidarity with what it means to be a nurse now. I think it means that first, we have to name what's true. From there, I think an individual can say, "OK, I can't fix the overall health system in this country, but what can I do to continue to serve, in ways that I can be whole and healthy?"

It's easy to fall into a well of despair. And at the same time, I think there is hope. Hope is not about pretending all these things haven't happened. It's deciding to pivot toward what is possible. There's something about the process [behind "The Nurse Antigone"] that neutralizes us so that we can hear each other differently, say what's true, and feel held and supported. Those experiences are relatively rare in our world these days.

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