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Stay home, wash hands and other ways to mark International Nurses Day

Writing on a car reads "Honk if you love RNs."
Healthcare workers at the AltaMed Health Services COVID-19 testing and medical evaluation site in Boyle Heights record the moment as they get a drive-by salute from the LAPD and members of the community during National Nurses Day in front of White Memorial Medical Center.
( Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)

Stay home, be healthy and provide more personal protective equipment. These are the requests nurses around the world are voicing for International Nurses Day on Tuesday.

This year’s recognition of nurses falls at a uniquely poignant time for the nursing field. It is the 200th birthday of Florence Nightingale, who is heralded as the mother of modern nursing, and it coincides with the World Health Organization-recognized Year of the Nurse and the Midwife.

It is also the first time International Nurses Day falls during a pandemic. May 12 is usually commemorated with cards or cupcakes. This year, there will be a candlelight vigil.

“Coronavirus came along and whilst none of us would have wished it, of course … all of the things that we wanted the Year of the Nurse to do have become palpably obvious and demonstrated in the most powerful way,” said Howard Catton, chief executive of the Geneva-based International Council of Nurses, which helped establish the annual recognition day in the early 1970s. “Yes, you are seeing nurses’ care and compassion, but you’re seeing their bravery and their courage. You’re seeing the real human element of nursing.”

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Nurses are standing beside dying patients whose family members can’t visit them. They’re drawing creatively from their medical and technical skills to help patients who have a novel disease. Even nurses who are not in the thick of the outbreak bear the marks of the pandemic: N95 masks bruising their faces and alcohol-heavy sanitizer cracking their dry hands.

All the while, they’re dealing with a global shortage of personal protective equipment.

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“Yes, we take care of our patients, but we also need to make sure that we’re safe, because if we become ill ... who’s going to take care of the patients?” said Cathy Kennedy, 63, a nurse in the neonatal intensive care unit at Kaiser Permanente Roseville Medical Center, near Sacramento. “I worry.”

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In her spare time, Kennedy has lobbied locally and nationally for better PPE. She also keeps track of the number of COVID-19-related nursing fatalities and will participate Tuesday evening in the National Nurses United online candlelight vigil to honor nurses who died caring for COVID-19 patients.

Catton said the International Council of Nurses has counted 260 nurse deaths worldwide through imperfect data-gathering from individual nursing associations and media reports. But he emphasized the number is underrepresented and lamented the lack of a standardized tracking system. At UCLA alone, The Times reported a month ago more than 175 cases among medical workers — a conservative estimate.

USC Keck Medical Center’s chief nursing officer Annette Sy said hospital administration is working hard to make sure all staff caring for COVID-19 patients are well protected and working reasonable hours. The hospital has also sought to keep up the spirit of the annual National Nurses Week, which kicked off Wednesday. Keck provided nurses with to-go breakfasts, transitioned their annual awards ceremony to teleconference and handed out scholarships, Sy said.

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People can acknowledge International Nurses Day in myriad ways from home. Nurses from around the world offered suggestions:

“For me, the best appreciation would be for people to stay home and be safe,” said Deladem Woanyah, 28, a nurse at Korle Bu Teaching Hospital’s plastic surgery unit in Accra, Ghana’s capital city. “Just do the right thing so that we are not overwhelmed, because we could really get to that stage.”

“Speaking out for others really does go a long way,” said Lorene Pereira, 25, a registered nurse at Massachusetts Eye and Ear in Boston. She said she especially feels appreciated when people advocate for the well-being of nurses in the same way they advocate for patients.

“The best thing we can all do is try to stay healthy — follow social distancing,” said Shivang Patel, 25, who will begin work at Duke University Hospital in Durham, N.C., in July. “It goes a long way when I see people wearing [a] mask or just using hand sanitizer and social distancing.”


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