Our Nurses: Courageous, Caring, and Resilient

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As a nurse at MedStar Washington Hospital Center for more than two decades, I have always known that our nursing team is among the finest, anywhere. Witnessing their work during the COVID-19 pandemic only served to reinforce my heartfelt appreciation for every one of them.

Our nurses are the bravest, most thoughtful, most compassionate, brightest and most talented I’ve seen in my career. They continually go the extra mile in their work with our patients—as well as with each other. Words cannot adequately describe their sense of professionalism, camaraderie, empathy and kindness.

I’ve known this for a long time—it’s part of the reason I was inspired to become Chief Nursing Officer. I saw it nearly 20 years ago, when our nursing team rallied after the Pentagon was attacked on September 11th. At the time, I was 39 weeks pregnant with my daughter. That morning specifically, I did not feel well and had decided to take a sick day.

But then I saw the news. I felt like it was my obligation and duty to get to the Hospital Center immediately, so I jumped into my scrubs and raced there.

I didn’t regret the decision: it was inspiring to witness the commitment and solidarity of my colleagues on that monumentally tragic day. Every one of us felt compelled to take action—assuring that patients and colleagues were cared for throughout that traumatic and emotional week.

The Challenge of a Pandemic

But the challenge of the COVID-19 pandemic has proven even more intense. In the face of this new health emergency and despite widespread initial uncertainty about a completely new and frightening virus, our nursing team rallied again to provide exceptional care to the community. Going the extra mile to assure a patient’s well-being is what nurses do every day.

Throughout the long struggle against the coronavirus, our nurses have been amazing. They arrived right on schedule every day to care for very sick patients struggling with an unfamiliar and frequently deadly disease. And they did so despite their own concerns of potentially bringing the virus home to kids, a spouse, and/or elderly parents.

I was so humbled and inspired to witness that dedication—and appreciated the incredible opportunity to serve as chief nurse at such a remarkable time.

Until COVID-19, I’m not sure the community at large—or even our own families—truly comprehended the expertise of our nurses. But during the pandemic, it was heartwarming to see the community acknowledge their courage and resilience and to give them the recognition they deserve as invaluable frontline healthcare professionals. The supportive lawn signs and banners, the expressions of gratitude, and the gifts of food were welcome encouragement for the nurses who had to care for patients while family members stayed safe at home.

What our team did was beyond extraordinary. And thankfully, with the experience gained by our medical and nursing teams in the early phase of COVID-19, and now with the success of virus treatments and the new vaccines, we’re a lot better at managing this disease.

(Incidentally, if you really want to show your support for nurses and other healthcare workers, be sure to get your COVID-19 vaccine!)

Crises like the COVID-19 pandemic and 9/11 really shine a spotlight on the caliber of our nursing team. But I’m just as extraordinarily proud of our 2,000+ nurses in their work with patients day-to-day. More from Tonya Washington, MSN, RN: https://bit.ly/3gYoTvh via @MedStarWHC
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Ready for the Challenge

As clinicians at the biggest hospital in the Nation’s Capital, our teams spend significant time training and preparing for different disasters. We have always maintained an intense focus on emergency preparedness: we drill regularly to ensure we’re ready for potential disasters, mass casualties, evacuations—any scenario that might threaten the health of our community. I saw that level of preparedness prove invaluable when COVID-19 began to spread.

Today’s MedStar Washington Hospital Center nurses are just as eager to support their colleagues in a crisis as my colleagues and I were on 9/11. As the pandemic worsened, members of our team would fill in for each other if there was a need. Nurses who weren’t needed because elective surgeries were cancelled helped in the ICUs as part of the COVID teams. Many of us in management worked 15-16 hour days, especially in the beginning, so we could support our nurses and help where needed.

It was our responsibility to ensure our nurses had all the necessary resources, particularly personal protective equipment, or PPE—the masks, gowns, and other gear that quickly became in short supply across the country. The protocols to provide COVID-19 treatment and protect caregivers changed frequently, sometimes daily. We had to be nimble, adapt quickly, and communicate clearly and completely.

Our nurses really showed initiative in solving problems and introducing efficiencies. One of our nursing units, for example, realized they could streamline patient care and preserve PPE simply by using walkie-talkies and whiteboards right in the patients’ rooms to communicate with other members of the team about patient care, saving the time needed to leave the room and discuss elsewhere and avoiding the need to repeatedly discard critical PPE.

I have dozens of stories of the heroism and compassion I’ve seen from our nurses. For example:

  • We helped a young mother infected with COVID to deliver her infant. At the time, the infant’s father was out of the country and the illness had caught the little family unprepared. When dad returned, mom was improving, but the baby was still receiving care in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). The NICU team delighted the parents by throwing them a baby shower.

This thoughtfulness and generosity toward patients that our nurses have known just a short time is another reason I’m so proud to be associated with our team.

Professional Recognition

Crises like 9/11 and the COVID-19 pandemic shine a spotlight on the caliber of our nursing team. It validates the excellence that has helped our Hospital Center nurses earn a number of important distinctions and designations:

  • Our nursing team is well prepared, both academically and clinically: 86 percent of our nurses hold bachelor’s degrees, exceeding the national standard of 80 percent. Most of our nurse managers have master’s degrees, and some are working toward doctorates as well.
  • Our robust commitment to professional and educational development ensures that our nurses have the tools, training, and other resources to do their very best. Our development and practice teams work diligently to carefully and thoroughly prepare each nurse regarding all new or changing clinical practice guidelines, therapies, and equipment.
  • Not surprisingly, our nursing program has achieved several distinguished national awards and designations, including:
    • Pathway to Excellence® designation by The American Nurses Credentialing Center, a distinction awarded to only 152 hospitals in the country
    • A Beacon Award for Excellence (Silver) from the American Association of Critical-Care Nurses
    • A PRISM Award® from the Academy of Medical Surgical Nurses
    • Exemplar Status Recognition—Nurses Improving Care for Healthsystem Elders (NICHE)
    • Baby-Friendly® designation from Baby-Friendly USA
    • Accreditation of our Nurse Residency Program by the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education

Members of our nursing team have also been honored locally in the Washington Post and Washingtonian Magazine, praising their excellent work.

Resilience for Tomorrow

Throughout the pandemic, we’ve definitely realized how resilient we are! We learned just how adaptable we can be. We know we can move quickly to embrace new protocols and shift resources to meet demand.

We continue to embrace the highest standards of professionalism and clinical care for our patients. And we remain vigilant that, like patients, we must help our entire team to stay healthy and grounded themselves during a crisis, via internal support programs.

Whether you call it fate or circumstance, 2020 was designated the Year of the Nurse by the World Health Organization, and I feel that the Washington D.C. community is privileged to have our amazing group of nurses at MedStar Washington Hospital Center available for their care.

I believe I am doing the work I was intended to do, placed here to lead this phenomenal team, to support them, to advocate for them and do everything in my power to help them be their best, second to none. It’s a huge job, I’m humbled and grateful to do it…and I would not want to do anything else.

Editor’s Note: The photo of Tonya used in this piece was taken prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.


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