“Your profession is not what brings home your weekly paycheck. Your profession is what you’re put here on earth to do, with such passion and intensity that it becomes spiritual in calling.”
Vincent Van Gogh spoke these words more than a century ago. While he was speaking about himself as an artist, these words take on a whole new meaning in the context of healthcare workers who find themselves working, day in and day out, in settings where there is a severe shortage of nurses, doctors, and resources to provide quality care. The overwhelming needs at the bedside and a lack of respect can drain passion. A “calling” can easily become a burden.
I had decided to pursue a nursing education after spending a day visiting a rural hospital in India. The ward nurse I met at the hospital in India was alone, overwhelmed and under-resourced. I was shocked by the two standards of nursing education and support. It seemed wildly unfair that I had educational opportunities and resources that she didn’t. Becoming a nurse, I decided, would become my tool to realign this inequality.
In 2012, my goal was realized when I had the opportunity to work in Haiti. Haiti was in the process of investing in reversing the nursing shortage, and then the 2010 earthquake hit, killing more than 220,000 people. Thirty nursing students and faculty were killed while they gathered in class. The next generation of nurses was suddenly gone. The health worker shortage was further exacerbated by the cholera epidemic, killing over 9,000 people, including many health workers.
While the educational and healthcare infrastructure was being rebuilt, there were efforts to support Haitian nurses on the front lines of patient care. My assignment was to work alongside two Haitian nurses who had been hired as Clinical Nurse Educators at St. Marc, a 300-bed hospital that was badly hit by the earthquake. The goal of this new position was to establish leadership roles for nurses, provide professional development opportunities to build nursing capacity and ultimately, encourage the respect and retention of Haitian nurses. My role was to help these two new nursing leaders understand their role and establish a framework for success.
Sitting in Haiti, in the office of two newly minted Clinical Nurse Educators, both of them Haitian, I simply asked, “How can I help you?”
The question was meant to help us carve out goals and objectives for our work together. As the words came out of my mouth, my question took on another meaning. I was in the presence of nurses who were on the front lines of a national tragedy. These nurses represented the determination and power to survive and overcome the trauma that had been dealt to their country. Regardless of their personal circumstances, they showed up, every day, to care for their patients. And now they were stepping up further to build the capacity and respect for their profession, embodying a passion and intensity despite the hardship. At the end of the day, my role was simply to listen and share the tools, resources, and knowledge they needed to succeed.
Just last year, Haiti was hit with Hurricane Matthew, renewing a cholera outbreak and adding to the humanitarian crisis. A recent report on Relief Web reports political unrest and violence that resulted in a temporary evacuation of humanitarian aid workers. When humanitarian aid workers evacuated, the Haitian nurses remained steadfast, always, even in environments that are not safe or ideal.
As the Associate Chief Nursing Officer for Seed Global Health, I partner with governments and nursing academic institutions to strengthen health education and delivery in five African countries. Seed builds local capacity by sending U.S. nurses to partner with local faculty and clinicians, providing high-quality education and mentorship to nursing students and other faculty and clinical staff.
World Humanitarian Day is a day to advocate for the safety and security of humanitarian aid workers, and for the survival, well-being, and dignity of people affected by crises. Let’s not forget about the Haitian nurses and nurses around the globe, who are a consistent presence on the front lines, even when the immediate humanitarian crisis comes to an end. For these nurses, like Van Gogh said, their profession embodies a true passion and intensity that is driven by a belief that providing excellent nursing care, bringing comfort, and saving lives are more meaningful than the barriers that stand in their way. This belief keeps them showing up day after day, long after the immediate crisis has passed.