Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Nurses put the care in health care -- Sept. 25, 2014 column


Something very important has been missing from our national debate about health care.

The debate focuses endlessly on big numbers, like the millions of aging boomers who will strain the Medicare rolls and the millions receiving care under the Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. Obamacare, and Medicaid.  And the millions still left behind without insurance coverage.

We focus on big-picture politics, like which party is winning or losing. Will Republicans gain control of Senate and keep the House so Congress will move to repeal the health law? What then?

And we fixate on big money. Why does health care cost so much and how can we rein in costs?

These are all worthy theoretical topics for a national discussion, but there’s really only one number that matters in health care, and that’s one.

When a beloved family member or friend is sick, that one patient’s experience is everything.
Like many journalists, I’ve written for years about big-picture health care from a distance, as an interested observer. Very recently, though, I had the sad, bewildering experience of watching a loved one die.

So today, I want to bring health care back to the personal and individual. I want to say thank you to nurses – to certified nursing assistants, licensed practical nurses, registered nurses, nurse practitioners, and others.

You put the care in health care. 
My 92-year-old mother died Monday in a hospital in Richmond, Va. The care she received from the team in the Coronary Care Unit the last three and a half days of her long life was exemplary.  Thank you, Michelle, Chris, Geeta, Dan, Justin, and Kay in Hospice and the rest whose names I’m forgetting. You were wonderful.

For most of her life, Jennie Jennings DeGenaro was exceptionally active and healthy. She ate right and exercised and was proud that she’d been in the hospital only once, when she gave birth to me. Then, close to 90, she fell, broke her pelvis and was hospitalized. Her long decline began.  

I’ve learned over the last couple of years, as my mother came to rely more on nursing assistance at home for daily tasks, that health care is all about what happens between people. It’s the relationship of trust between the patient and family members and a universe of medical professionals. Nowhere is the relationship more vital than between patient and nurse.

Nurses are the front line of care. Doctors parachute into our world and we into theirs, but nurses stay on the ground from crucial moment to moment. It’s meaningful that the word for nurse derives from the Latin word meaning to nourish.

At the hospital, the nurses anticipated my mother’s needs and my dad’s and mine. They listened, helped us understand what was happening and involved us in decisions. They were very busy, but they didn’t show it. They took the time needed to do their work. They were compassionate, efficient, cheerful and very kind. Thank you.

At such sad times and at joyous occasions as well, like the birth of a baby, each family judges our nation’s health care system on what happens to the people in one room.  Our national health care debate must remember that whether our system is thought a success depends on those individual  experiences.    

I know we can’t generalize from one case, but I feel pretty sure that my family didn’t just happen on a fluke of nursing greatness. We’re fortunate in this country to have men and women who want to work 12-hour shifts relieving pain and helping people heal. We all should be grateful for nurses – and encourage more young people to enter the field. We face a growing shortage of nurses.

It’s also time to support nurses as they seek expanded roles in providing medical care. We’re undergoing profound changes in the way medicine is practiced, and nurses have the ability and desire to do more. They are a most valuable resource and we should use their talents. 

To those who say health care in America doesn’t stack up with that other countries, I say, baloney. Thank goodness for nurses.

©2014 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.



  1. Marsha, what a beautifully-written article that every nurse will surely appreciate. I am glad your dear mother received such wonderful care. It is good to know that health care in America does stack up! Thank you.

    Mary Montague Sikes

    1. Thank you for taking the time to write me, Mary Montague Sikes. I do appreciate it.