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From the Berkshires to the Back Bay, Massachusetts nurses are among the best in the world. So said the many patients, family members, and colleagues who wrote letters saluting nurses who are making a difference.
In 864 salutes sent to the Boston Globe, writers praised the skills of nurses at every level, from home care and school nurses to those on the front lines of a deadly pandemic. These were the most letters received since the Globe began asking readers to nominate exceptional nurses for its first “Salute to Nurses” section more than 20 years ago.
“This whole [pandemic] has highlighted the value of health care professionals, but no health care professional deserves more recognition than nurses. They’ve been on the front line since day one,” said Michael Tarnoff, interim president and CEO of Tufts Medical Center and Tufts Children’s Hospital in Boston, and chairman and surgeon-in-chief at Tufts University School of Medicine.
That front line in the war on COVID-19 has been filled by many of the 151,000 licensed nurses in Massachusetts, including some who worked tirelessly seven days a week as the number of patients surged in 2020.
The pandemic that has killed more than 500,000 Americans has taken a toll on nurses too. According to the Kaiser Health Network, more than 3,600 U.S. health care workers have died since the pandemic began, including 823 nurses.
Yet, out of all the chaos of the last year came some miracles. At a time when protective medical gear was in short supply and questions surrounded the virus’s origin and cure, there were countless touching moments of compassion and care by nurses statewide.
Marlene Moore saw that compassion in the way Alexis VanHorn, a nurse at St. Elizabeth’s Medical Center in Brighton, cared for Moore’s husband, Paul, before he succumbed to COVID in April 2020.
“She was just so good to us. She was just so dedicated,” said Moore, recalling how VanHorn worked for 18 days straight because of her dedication to her patients. VanHorn called Moore every day with updates on her husband’s condition and set up video calls that gave Moore and her daughter the chance to say final goodbyes at a time when family members were not allowed hospital visits.
That scenario was repeated again and again throughout the state as dedicated nurses found creative ways to bring families into hospital rooms virtually. Using tablets, cell phones, or translation apps, nurses at Salem Hospital, North Shore Medical Center, and other hospitals throughout Massachusetts set up video and phone chats between patients and family members, held the hands of dying patients, and cheered for those who were taken off ventilators or transferred out of COVID units.
“They were just so innovative and creative,” said Debbie Burke, a senior vice president of patient care at Massachusetts General Hospital, of the ideas that originated from nurses as they battled the pandemic. “Everybody just stepped up to the plate.”
The virus also created a special sense of comradeship and teamwork among the staff. “It wasn’t just the nurses. It was the doctors, the therapists, the nutrition people. It was like we’re going to do this and we’re going to do it together,” said Nancy Ahern, a nurse manager and head of critical care and rapid response at South Shore Health in Weymouth.
Nurses in COVID wards were not the only ones who became heroes to their patients. Maternity nurse Phylis Butler, for example, helped deliver hundreds of babies before retiring from Mount Auburn Hospital in Cambridge after 37 years.
In deeply personal letters, patients told of the heroics of nurses like Heather Rurak, who used CPR to save the life of a man whose heart stopped during a visit with his family as he awaited a double lung transplant at Brigham Health.
Other letters talked about the compassion and kindness of nurses serving with the Visiting Nurse Association of Cape Cod, and Alex Huber, a critical care nurse at Berkshire Medical Center in Pittsfield, who never gave up on a patient even after she was given last rites four times. The patient, Michele Drysgola, survived to write: “Alex did everything she could to keep me comfortable and well cared for. She was my angel.”
Some letters came from hospital staffers, written in praise of colleagues who were too modest, unassuming, or just too busy to recognize their own accomplishments. Even with faces covered in “battle scars” from the masks they wore all day, nurses like those on the Surgical Intensive Care Unit at Beth Israel Lahey Health never gave up hope.
One such nurse, Ashley Wiseman, a surgical team member, summed up what so many patients, regardless of their medical situation, witnessed across the Commonwealth during the past year: “We ran out of meds, supplies, and even places to put all of our patients, but we never ran out of heart,” Wiseman said.
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