Nursing: America’s Least Underpaid Profession
In honor of National Nurses Week, I thought I’d pose the question: What are American nurses’ actual responsibilities these days?
Last week while researching a column on Obama’s pandering to various interest groups, I noticed that his campaign website featured a page, grouped with pages for various demographic categories, devoted to Nurses. What was that about, I wondered? Was Obama shoring up support for Obamacare with a key segment of the medical profession?
Not at the hospital I spent last week at, they didn’t.
After suffering a spontaneous pneumothorax (collapsed lung), I entered the emergency room of a midtown Manhattan hospital for surgery that involved suctioning excess air out of the space between my left lung and chest and allowing the lung to reinflate. When it collapsed again two days later, doctors performed a more advanced surgery. Two days with tubes in my chest, a day of observation, and I was home.
Throughout the week, all of the doctors I encountered—pulmonologists, cardiologists, generalists, specialists, attending surgeons, resident physicians—were top-notch, and eagerly took all the time needed to answer my most detailed and speculative questions. They made my long, difficult stay more bearable.
Not so the scores of nurses who crossed my path, virtually all of whom made my stay far more uncomfortable and demoralizing than it needed to be.
All week there were precisely three nurses I encountered who could be described as better than terrible. The first was a perky twenty-something who fed me rapid-fire advice and reassured me with her calm competence. The second was a fifty-something Latino man who always welcomed me profusely, whistled while he worked, and asked if there were anything I needed before he left the room. The third was a thirty-something Filipino woman who was quick, thorough, cheerful, and brimming with information.
The rest of them can go to hell.
The question smoldering at the edge of my consciousness all week was, What do these people get paid to actually do?
Most of the nurses’ duties seemed to be implemented for them by an army of nurses’ assistants, assistant nurses, nurse practitioners, social workers, Candy Stripers, and housekeepers, all of whom were regularly corralled into service to handle the supposed overflow.
The nurses performed no food-related services. A separate contractor rushed in three meals a day, retrieved replacement items, and cleared everything away. Requests to nurses for a measly cup of coffee were usually met with rolled eyes, mumbled complaints, and vague promises that rarely amounted to any follow-up.
The nurses performed no recreational services. A contractor visited every day to collect payment for the cable TV. Elderly volunteers strolled by offering magazines, newspapers, and paperbacks.
The nurses performed no therapeutic, spiritual, or cheering-up services. A physical therapist met me twice a day to teach me exercises that would help me transition back to normal life. Volunteers popped in throughout the week to see if I needed someone to talk to. Two ladies offered me “pet therapy”: a sociable Shi-Tzu named Rockie who played with me on my bed while we chatted.
What did the nurses do? I’ll tell you what they did—they took blood pressure. Oh! how nurses love to take blood pressure. They love to roll in their clunky, ominous, coat-stand-shaped contraption every couple of hours, wrap that cuff around your arm, and crush you like a boa constrictor. They love taking your blood pressure, over and over again, whether it’s needed or not, whether it overlaps with other nurses’ readings, whether you’re dead asleep in the dark getting much-needed rest and must be rudely awoken to bright lights to take it. They love taking blood pressure with a cat, they love it in a hat, they love it in a house, they love it with a mouse.
I have no history of high blood pressure, and mine never veered out of excellent territory. Yet nurses leapt at me with their cuffs every chance they got like lions on wildebeests. My upper arms had rashes by the time I escaped.
Maybe constantly taking blood pressure made these nurses feel useful. I would say that they were trying to be sadistic, but Nurse Ratched had energy and focus. These people were mostly just extraordinarily lazy.
That brings me to the other thing they did, which was shuffle around with sour looks on their faces as though they hated their jobs and were happy to take it out on their patients. One nurse sloppily inserted four consecutive IVs in my arm over an hour—each of which popped out, because my arm was sweaty and she wasn’t taping them securely enough—and then, instead of investigating the situation and adjusting her methods, yelled at me and told me it was my fault.
These women are in the wrong profession. They should be toll-takers or parking-meter attendants, where their callousness is less consequential or maybe expected.
The language issue is also not to be overlooked. When you’re not fluent in English, and your patients speak only English, the results aren’t funny, George Lopez-style misunderstandings, they often cause your breathless, nauseated, aching patients great frustration and discomfort. I asked one nurse to ratchet down my meal tray, which was a foot too high. She said “Down?” and proceeded to lower my bed a foot, then turned and left before I could protest.
Maybe my experience at this hospital doesn’t generalize to the rest of the country. This was a large, well-known, respected hospital, and I had a sample size of scores of nurses over seven days. My observations seem relevant to what goes on in at least some major urban hospitals. In private consultations with me, doctors and other hospital employees quietly confirmed my dismal evaluation of the nursing staff in a way that implied it wasn’t limited to the hospital in question.
What has happened in recent generations to practitioners of this once-noble profession? I don’t know. I do know that if Obamacare isn’t repealed, Democrats and nurses’ unions will do their best to corrupt the occupation even further, teachers union-style, by shielding professional misconduct, decoupling performance from compensation and advancement, and generally doing everything they can to lower the quality of nursing nationwide.