Days were unmistakably strange and uncertain two months after the world changed.
It was May and I spent hours on the phone with my attorney and with the team who would eventually create Dear Nurses. One by one we made phone calls that began with some version of ‘if you want to do this, take a night to sleep on it before you sign the waiver’. The gist of the waiver?
You won’t hold me liable if you get sick.
As morning came over a series of days, people who I admire and trust began replying: “I’m in.”
Our whispers got louder: could this be once in a century work? You gotta realize most artists--if they’re honest with themselves--yearn to be loved for something they create.
I wasn’t thinking about the nurses, I was thinking about myself.
It’s day one and a nurse is telling me how she started to get a shortness of breath towards the end of her COVID experience. “I don’t scare easily. I’m a nurse, you know,” she said.
“But in the back of my mind, I had decided that I was going to take care of everybody and God was going to take care of me.”
In another room in the hospital, our video team worked to re-enact some of the situations nurses faced.
We reconvened around lunch and all of us looked at each other.
This is special.
Nurses expressed a spectrum of truths: gratitude, resilience, fear, love, camaraderie. Nearly 40 nurses participated.
One doctor sat, too.
A year later, we still point fingers and shrug shoulders. We distance and we don’t. The American way, I suppose.
What’s uniquely American? The diversity of our sentiment--and our stories.
Today we release a short documentary from that week in May. It features six of our portrait subjects:
When we showed it to them, they shared a mixture of emotions. Some didn’t like the sound of their voice or the way they looked. Some loved it and some thought we could have gone deeper. But I take heart in each of them saying:
“It felt true.”
We should measure a story’s success in units of truth--not clicks.
“It is not a testimonial if you don’t tell anybody,” one nurse said.
I also would like to acknowledge that while our documentary presents the experiences of some nurses, they are not the experiences of all nurses. They are also not speaking on behalf of AACN or their hospitals.
A significant difference from May is the introduction of vaccinations. Some of our nurses talked about how excited they were for the vaccine, and that they just finished dose one and were gearing up for the second. Those nurses see the vaccine as a beginning to an end. Others were a little hesitant, saying that they will hold off and see how other people take it before taking it themselves.
The overall feeling was a sense of hope whether they were taking it now or later.
When we filmed the documentary, there was a movement around the country hailing health care workers as heroes.
Families stuck yard signs on their lawns, New Yorkers serenaded at sunset. Celebrities sent pizza and pastries to hospitals.
As the novelty of the pandemic began to fade, we faced hard truths. Fatigue and sustainability began to intersect. It’s not a new phenomenon, just ask anyone who has experienced a kind of world shaking event.
Pulse nightclub and Boston marathon bombing survivors I’ve interviewed come to mind. They know and I knew: The cameras, cards and celebrity shout outs always fade.
I asked the nurses if another reality presented itself where there were no pizza deliveries, yard signs or serenades: “Would you rather have had that?”
And all of them said no.
It’s important when you read or listen to people who say that those efforts were frivolous or unsustainable to read that with a deeper level of nuance.
Were they unsustainable? Yes.
Were they frivolous? Absolutely not.
Each nurse wanted me to double down on the love and support bolstered them during those strange and scary days.
“I have a calling to do it,” said one of our nurses. “And so that doesn't really matter to me that the external praise has gone. But, it was nice to be recognized.”
Some nurses told us that instead of praise, they would prefer that people showed them that they cared through their actions by taking the coronavirus seriously.
Another common theme? Frustration.
“I don't think people are really social distancing, one nurse said. “And I get it, I totally get that it sucks. But as long as people are resistant to doing the things that we need to do, it's going to take longer to eradicate this.
I learned when I talked to the nurses for a second time that while our lives have changed since May, theirs have mostly stayed the same. One nurse said that what has stayed the same since May is that there are very few victories in COVID.
“Everyone mostly dies,” said the nurse. “In the ICU, I've seen very few people walk out.”
And yet, every day since May they have been going to work with the goal to do everything that they can.
I hope that as we near the anniversary of the WHO’s declaration of the pandemic, you watch this documentary.
You’ll see the best traits of humanity on display: patience, knowledge, resilience, grace and service.
Perhaps, you'll have the traits of the person you aspire to to be.
Robert X FogartyDear World, Founder