Reflecting on what really was the Year of the Nurse

The role of the nurse has been front and centre since the pandemic began.

Why 2020 shone the light on our nursing professionals

Even before the term COVID-19 was a household name, the World Health Organization had designated 2020 as the International Year of the Nurse and the Midwife. It was to be a year of celebration, milestones and recruitment opportunities to encourage more people to think about nursing as a career.

Marie Tarrant, director of UBC Okanagan’s school of nursing, reflects on 2020 and how the events of the pandemic brought home the significance of nurses in our society today.

2020 shone the light on our nursing professionals. Is this something we should carry forward after the pandemic?

Yes, I think the important role of the nurse has been long overlooked in many ways. Within a hospital setting, the most important intervention in a patient’s progress and recovery is expert nursing care. Surgeries and other medical interventions can only be effective if there are skilled nurses to care for and monitor patients.

In preventive care, the delivery of infant and maternal health programs—primarily by public-health nurses—has also been responsible for substantial decreases in maternal and child mortality over the past century. In addition, nurses are often the most common health-care provider for education and counselling on chronic disease prevention and management such as smoking cessation, diabetes, hypertension and coronary heart disease.

Has the pandemic changed people’s perceptions?

I think so and I hope this continues once we have Covid-19 under control. The pandemic has highlighted how essential and impactful nurses are every day in the lives of their patients. Nurses have been on the front lines of the pandemic and sadly have been the health care professional most likely to be infected and to die from Covid-19. In late October, the International Council of Nurses released data showing that in 44 countries, more than 1,500 nurses have died of Covid-19. The true toll is likely to be higher and the majority of these are in low-income countries where nurses may be the main health-care providers for their population. This will have implications for the health care delivery in these countries for years to come.

Also, because of restrictions in health-care settings, nurses are often the only person with Covid-19 patients as they pass away. This has been the focus of a lot of media attention and has highlighted both the unique role of nurses in the pandemic and also the enormous burden that nurses have endured over the past nine months. This is also an issue that will have ramifications on the profession of nursing for years to come.

What led you into the career?

I was hospitalized several times as a child, and I have two older sisters who are nurses. I cannot remember a time when I didn’t want to be a nurse. It has been a highly rewarding career for me, and has literally taken me around the country and around the world. I have worked in large Canadian cities, in remote northern regions of Manitoba, Ontario, and Nunavut, and in one of the most densely populated cities in Asia.

There are so many different paths a nurse’s career can take. What advice would you give someone considering a career as a nurse?

What I always tell our incoming students and anyone considering a career in nursing, is that it offers such a diverse and rewarding career pathway. Just in our school alone, we have faculty members who have worked in all areas of clinical practice within a hospital setting. Outside of the hospital setting, our faculty have worked in such diverse nursing roles as flight nursing, research, education, school nursing, community and public health, and home care. They have also worked all over the world including in the United States, Europe, Australia, Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. Within all of these roles and areas of practice, nurses can be working in direct clinical practice, in advanced practice nursing roles, in management and administration. In an academic career, nurses are involved in clinical and classroom teaching, research, community and professional service, educational leadership, and academic administration.

It wasn’t the year you planned, but it sure did put a focus on the profession. What’s next?

Going forward, it is clear that nurses will be heavily involved in the rollout of the Covid-19 mass vaccination campaign. Of course, nurses have always been on one of the main providers of vaccinations, but the context and scale of this vaccination campaign will be like nothing we have ever witnessed before.

While 2020 was earmarked as the Year of the Nurse and the Midwife, we need to recognize and celebrate nurses every day. It has been heartening to see all of the public support for nurses and other health care professionals over the past year. Nurses will always be there—at the forefront of health care.