“I Save Lives. You?”

By Donna Cardillo, RN, MA

While traveling on business, I noticed a billboard with a picture of a police officer on it. The caption read, “I save lives. What do you do?” What a powerful statement and a great way to illustrate the significant work police officers do. The same billboard could be used for nurses. Because when all is said and done, that is the essence of what we do. We save lives and we improve lives. No matter what specialty or work setting we’re in, our impact is significant and far-reaching.

It’s always challenging to convey to outsiders what we do in terms that are meaningful to them. There is still a widespread belief that nurses are “helpers” to the physician, obediently and selflessly following orders. What most people (even some nurses) fail to recognize is that nursing is an independent and autonomous profession. It is a knowledge-based profession with its own body of science, research and practice standards.

Nurses develop their own plan of care for patients – just as physicians do. We use critical thinking skills, initiate life-saving measures, and conduct comprehensive, precise evaluations and monitoring. We teach, counsel, coach, nurture and support. We are healthcare experts in our own right. Nurses possess a great body of healthcare knowledge and experience – even right out of nursing school.

And while part of our job is sometimes to coordinate orders and treatments, we do not blindly follow orders. We interpret, translate, evaluate and apply judgment. We also consult with and advise other members of the healthcare team. We then skillfully plan, implement, administer, manage and coordinate all aspects of care to established standards of nursing practice.

When I am out in non-healthcare circles and people find out I am a nurse, some say with a tinge of disgust in their voice, “Oh, I could never do what you do.” I often say to them, “Nursing is not for everyone. It’s challenging to have someone’s life, health, and well-being in your hands at all times.” When people sympathetically say, “Nurses work so hard,” I sometimes respond, “Yes, it is hard work saving lives, promoting health and wellness and improving the welfare of the planet.”

But the question I find most remarkable is, “You’re so intelligent. Why didn’t you become a doctor?” It’s as if intelligent people become doctors and less intelligent people become nurses. When I was recently asked that question – for the first time in decades – I gave the questioner my standard answer: “It is precisely because I am so intelligent that I chose nursing. Nursing and medicine are two entirely different career paths. One is not an elevated version of the other. I chose nursing because it keeps me in closer proximity to healthcare consumers, where I believe I can do the most good.” I sometimes add, “Don’t ever underestimate the amount of intelligence, science and the skill needed to be a great nurse. We make it look easy because we’re so good at what we do.”

So the next time someone asks you what you do, consider responding, “I save lives and improve health. I’m a nurse. What do you do?”

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