As a profession, nurses have endured seismic challenges over the past few years. The COVID-19 pandemic was as deadly as advertised, claiming the lives of approximately 115,000 healthcare workers between January 2020 and May 2021, according to estimates from the World Health Organization

The damage sustained over the course of the pandemic will likely take years to be fully realized, but nurse leaders are learning lessons from COVID-19 and imploring the public for greater support going forward. To commemorate National Nurses Week, two of them share their stories.

Irnise F. Williams has been a nurse for more than a dozen years and completed her law degree while working in healthcare, leading to the creation of her own practice in 2017.

Reflecting on her experiences during the pandemic, Williams said the combination of staff limitations and pervasive sickness and death was “overwhelming” and “traumatizing.” She added that many nurses still have serious concerns about a lack of mental health resources and pre-existing staffing shortfalls.

“The bigger conversation for all nurses is this fear of, ‘If I love it here, I love what I do and I do it well, but the limitations are making it hard for me to do my job, then where does that leave me?’” said Williams.

As she treated patients during 2020, Williams recognized that she hadn’t completed her goals. She restarted her practice to focus on business development while also assisting bedside nurses and nurse practitioners with documentation and ways to avoid medical malpractice suits.

Even as she resumed her law career, Williams urged people outside the profession to understand that nurses are deserving of the same level of respect and support as other professionals. She said that there needs to be an emphasis on long-term solutions, like strengthening the nursing pipeline with more people attending nursing school and offering financial support for those who decide to enroll. 

“Individually, nurses have a dream and a hope that the system will change. But even on the local or healthcare system level, those aren’t coming fast enough to actually solve the problems that we’re having,” Williams said. 

Despite her pandemic experience, Williams remains optimistic about the future of the profession — albeit with some trepidation caused by the disconnect between the public’s notion of what nurses do and their actual day-to-day responsibilities.

“The inability for nurses to be honest and tell their stories to people is going to make it hard to actually change things,” she explained. “Patients and their families are going to be the ones to create change because they’re the ones who are experiencing the shortfall and seeing what’s happening in hospitals and long-term care facilities when you don’t have appropriate staffing.”

Then there’s Rhonda Collins, chief nursing officer at Vocera Communications, who believes the healthcare industry must do more to address the needs of nurses.

“For the last two years and counting, nurses have gone into battle for us and risked their own well-being to protect us,” she said. “We must now listen to protect them. We must listen to what they need to feel safe at work and want to stay in the profession.” 

Collins characterized nurses’ commitment to patients and fellow healthcare workers as a “driving force” that helped them work through staffing issues, a lack of adequate PPE, looming fear for their own personal safety and seeing so many people die. 

Nurses have held their own and come through the other side exhausted and frustrated.  That’s why stakeholders need to evaluate innovative tools and workflow processes that can make the job of a nurse less cumbersome, Collins believes.

“They want solutions that ease their burdens. They want leaders to hear their ideas and encourage and fund innovation,” she said. “Now is the time to listen to nurses’ needs and take action to support them.”

As for how being a nurse impacts her role as a healthcare executive, Collins said leadership means setting an example for others while listening to and valuing the voices of those around you.

“Nursing is a profession that has enormous influence. Nurses make decisions that can impact lives and families for years to come,” she added. “Leading people carries the same responsibility, because my leadership can impact careers, people and families.”