Last year when the World Health Organization (WHO) designated 2020 as the year of the Nurse and Midwife, we knew it was going to be a special year. Even then, I had my initial thoughts on how Nurses Week in 2020 would differentiate itself from previous years. It wasn’t until March that we knew the novel Coronavirus impacting the U.S. was inevitable. State mandates quickly followed resulting in some nurses working remotely, surgery staff being redeployed and guidelines prevented large groups or meetings. It was then certain that this year’s Nurses Week celebrations would be different.
Then the “a-ha” moment hit me. Nurses Week is not about the celebration, but why we celebrate.
We celebrate nurses.
We celebrate the most trusted profession.
We celebrate the milestones the profession has accomplished and those yet to reach.
We celebrate the patients we remember losing and those we saved.
We celebrate each other.
This year in the battle against Covid-19 the nursing profession drew comparisons to superheroes. I liked this, I jokingly related. To the teams I lead, I am Charles Xavier. To my four daughters, I am Superman. To my son, I am the Hulk. To my wife… I am Batman, at least that’s how I think of it.
This year, however, hasn’t been a joke at all. We, the nurses, are facing an enemy we’ve never seen before. A lot of people are sick, many have died. Our friends and colleagues have died. Are superheroes an appropriate comparison? Yes, I think they are. Most superhero stories focus on the origin of the hero. The focus is usually on the precise moment in time a normal guy/gal goes from being ‘just like us’ to becoming superhuman: better, faster, stronger.
Clinical Psychologist Robin Rosenberg says stories of origin don’t necessarily show us how to become super, but how to become heroes, choosing altruism over the pursuit of wealth and power. She goes on to say that a hero battles supernatural forces and returns home from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons upon his fellow man. I would definitely consider Covid-19 as a formidable supernatural force we’re fighting. Every process and resource of the old normal went out the window. New staffing models, drive-through testing, max PPE and ultimate teamwork became the new weapons.
Rosenberg identified three types of life-altering experiences that all superhero origins go through.
The first is trauma. This is at the heart of Batman’s origin, where a young Bruce Wayne sees his parents get murdered and then dedicates the rest of his life to fighting crime. In real life, many people go through “stress-induced growth.” By this definition, we’ve all experienced a recent trauma and certainly stress-induced growth. Over the past several weeks, the rules of old that gave us great comfort and routine were gone overnight. We had new rules that stretched comfort levels and made us live and thrive in an environment of constant change and ambiguity. I’m certain we will all be better nurses because of this experience.
The second life-altering force is destiny. Consider Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Here’s a story of a normal teenager who discovers she is the chosen one — endowed with supernatural powers to fight demons. Buffy is reluctant to accept her destiny, yet she throws herself into her new job. In the fight against Covid-19, how many of you assumed great responsibility? Who volunteered to work on the Covid-19 units? Who picked up extra shifts? Who led the teams in new staffing models? Who was the calm in the barrage of storms?
Lastly, there’s sheer chance. This is what transformed a young Spider-Man who was using his super power for selfish purposes until his beloved uncle was murdered by a street thug. Spider-Man’s heroism is an example of how random, adverse events cause many of us to take stock in our lives and choose a different path. Covid-19 has definitely made us all stop and reflect about the journey we’re on and the paths that lie ahead in the immediate and distant future.
The original stories of superheroes all follow a similar path. They inspire us while providing models of coping with adversity, finding meaning in loss and trauma, discovering our strengths and using them for a good purpose. The year 2020, the year of the nurse, has forced us all to do just these things. It’s no surprise to anyone that nurses rose to the challenge and faced the villain head on. I’m certain nurses will prevail in the end, making all of us… superheroes.
Happy Nurses Week. You deserve it more than ever.
This piece was written by Brian Weirich, who serves as VP and Chief Nurse at Indiana University Health, and is a founding member of the Society of Nurse Scientists, Innovators, Entrepreneurs and Leaders (SONSIEL).