Monday, May 29, 2023

Healing the Unsung Healers

And historical echoes bounce off the most urgent contemporary issues. In a chapter on the environment, the expansive role of nurses in the battle against climate change is addressed: from evacuating babies to researching heat-related kidney failure in agricultural workers to advocating for school policy that mitigates asthma rates. “Nurses are not always understood as crucial to climate change response, but they should be, because they are uniquely situated to respond.”

In the area of addiction, nurses trailblaze harm reduction clinics where people can safely inject heroin. We meet L. Synn Stern, a registered nurse who runs an overdose prevention center in New York. Here, she trains “harm reduction specialists,” including Mezon, whose role DiGregorio describes unflinchingly: how to inject, to use a tourniquet, avoid the burn of hitting an artery. And then, in a subtle takedown of the pharmaceutical industry responsible for the legacy of oxycodone, Mezon can also “show someone how to use a fentanyl test to make sure the heroin is not cut with the more potent drug.”

DiGregorio’s storytelling is pitch-perfect; narrative and nursing, she understands, come from the same place and both are concerned with a deep understanding of character and plot. We meet Cicely Saunders, who founded St. Christopher’s Hospice in 1947, as she cares for a 40-year-old man dying of cancer. “His pain — physical, existential, emotional — changed the course of Saunders’s life and of history,” DiGregorio writes. “Their intimacy gave her an understanding of what she would come to call ‘total pain,’ a combination of the physical symptoms, mental distress, social problems and spiritual needs that come with dying.”

DiGregorio doesn’t explicitly state that we might extend Saunders’s term to include the circumstances so rampant in our moment: mental illness, violence, poverty and loneliness. For too many people now, simply living is painful.

“Taking Care” never shouts. It doesn’t need to. But there is quiet anger on every page, especially in the wake of political shifts that render caregiving harder than ever. “With Roe now overturned, abortion criminalized in some states, and other privacy-based rights in jeopardy, reproductive care in the United States is more threatened than usual. And nurses and midwives are, again and always, stepping into that breach.” We are reminded that advocacy and activism are key functions of modern-day nursing.

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