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Nurse heroes come in many forms
Organizations shine the spotlight on nurses during National Nurses Week
Heather Stringer
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Heather Stringer is a freelance writer.
Jessica Haas, RN, a school nurse in Texas, rushed to the aid of a mother who had collapsed outside a Dallas elementary school in November. The woman had gone into cardiac arrest, and Haas saved her life using an automated external defibrillator.
Although Haas’s act of heroism made news headlines, nurses don’t necessarily need to save lives in a dramatic fashion to be heroes. In many cases, nurses are caring for patients with compassion and clinical expertise when they unknowingly become heroes to the people around them, said Bonnie Barnes, FAAN, co-founder and president of the DAISY Foundation, an organization created to help patients and families thank nurses who have made a difference. “Families may go home from the hospital thinking about how their nurses made a tremendous impact on their lives,” Barnes said. “Yet when nurses are recognized as heroes, they often say they didn’t do something special. They were just doing their jobs.”
is one of many organizations throughout the country that honor nurses through recognition programs that celebrate nurses for a range of accomplishments — everything from disaster support to leadership in the community. Barnes and her husband Mark established the foundation in 1999 because they were deeply impressed by the nurses who cared for their adult son, who was suffering from an autoimmune disease called idiopathic thrombocytopenic purpura. “When our son was in the hospital for eight weeks, we were able to see the impact nurses can make,” Barnes said. “Although their clinical skills were excellent, what really got our attention was how the care was delivered. The nurses treated our family with such kindness and sensitivity.” Their foundation partners with healthcare organizations that are interested in creating a
DAISY Award recognition program
. Each facility has the freedom to design the criteria for nomination, but criteria “fall under the big banner of compassionate care,” said Barnes. A hospital committee reviews nominations from patients, family members and colleagues, and surprise recipients on their units to present the award. Larger facilities may opt to present two or three awards per month, while smaller facilities may do fewer. Susan Tuck, ADN, RN, who works in the ICU at Carilion Clinic in Virginia, received the award after she cared for a 29-year-old mother with terminal cancer. The patient had two small children and was on a ventilator. Tuck advocated for her patient, and when life support was withdrawn a week before Christmas, Tuck decided to buy presents from the gift shop for the mother’s children. She labeled them as if they came from their mother so they would have something from her to open on Christmas.
The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation
demonstrated its high esteem of nurses by funding the Institute of Medicine’s landmark Future of Nursing Report in 2010, which called for nurses to play a fundamental role in transforming the healthcare system, said Susan Hassmiller, PhD, RN, FAAN, RWJF’s senior adviser for nursing. The organization continues to build momentum to expand the role of nurses in various ways, including recognition programs such as the “Breakthrough Leaders in Nursing” award. The award has been given to 20 nurses for contributing in extraordinary ways to the lives and well-being of the people in their communities.
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... when nurses are recognized as heroes, they often say they didn't do something special. They were just doing their job.”
- Bonnie Barnes, FAAN, co-founder and president of the DAISY Foundation (pictured with husband, Mark)
While Darlene Curley, MS, RN, CEO of the
Jonas Family Fund
, believes every nurse is a hero, she leads an organization that focuses its recognition on nurse leaders in academia, practice and research. The Jonas Nursing Leadership Award is given annually to nurses who demonstrate leadership and aim improve the healthcare system, and in 2016 this honor went to Mary Jane Blaustein, RNC, NP, an emeritus assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. Blaustein was a psychiatric nurse practitioner and one of the few nurses to teach in the medical school when she started her career. She later founded the Morton K. and Jane Blaustein Foundation, which provides grants to nurses who are working to improve educational opportunities and outcomes for disadvantaged and vulnerable youth. The Jonas Family Fund also is encouraging nurses to pursue the goal of becoming a future hero by supporting Jonas Scholars (recipients of their graduate student scholarships) to a three-day leadership conference in Washington, D.C., every year. This year there are 450 Jonas Scholars. Whether nurses are researchers, educators, practitioners or students, taking time to recognize nurses’ acts of heroism is critical, Curley said. “Nursing is the backbone of the healthcare system, but nurses do not typically strive to be in the press or call attention to themselves,” Curley said. “When we shine the light on exemplary nurses, they become important role models for others.”
The American Red Cross has a longstanding history of recognizing nurse heroes with awards such as the Florence Nightingale Medal, which was established in 1912 to honor exceptional courage and devotion to the wounded, sick or disabled or to civilian victims of a conflict or disaster. It also recognizes exemplary service or a pioneering spirit in areas of public health or nursing education. The organization also established the Ann Magnussen Nursing Award in 1968, the highest American Red Cross nursing award. It is given to nurses who have made an outstanding contribution to strengthening or improving Red Cross programs and services. “Nurses who volunteer their time, donate blood or give financially are heroes to me,” said Linda MacIntyre, PhD, RN, chief nurse of the American Red Cross. “Heroes also include nurses who take extra steps to change policies or systems that impact many people.” This year’s Ann Magnussen Nursing Award went to Susan Denavit, RN, who has volunteered with the Red Cross for almost 30 years. She has been deployed more than 35 times to respond to disasters and currently serves as the Pacific Division Nurse Leader. In her leadership roles, she looked for ways to improve the organization, such as increasing retention of volunteers. “She saw the importance of asking volunteers about their passions and interests before matching them with an opportunity,” MacIntyre said. “Sometimes people want to help in areas that are different than their day jobs.”
Creating healthy communities
Volunteering during crises

Honoring nurse educators
Off-duty nurse heroes
Although nurses primarily use their skills while treating patients in traditional settings like hospitals or medical offices, some of their most memorable moments may occur when their expertise is needed in emergency situations outside clinical walls. In December 2016, Nicholas and Deborah Meyers, both RNs at UC Davis Medical Center in Sacramento, Calif., were house hunting in a Sacramento suburb when they heard screams for help from an adjacent backyard. Nicholas jumped over the fence and found a panicked mother who had pulled her 3-year-old son out of the pool.

The boy did not have a pulse and was turning blue. Deborah, who wasn’t tall enough to jump the fence, broke through to help her husband. Nick started CPR, and about three minutes later fluid sprayed out of the toddler’s mouth and he started to cough. The boy survived. Later, the couple learned that he was not showing signs of neurological deficits. In February 2017, an Ohio nurse became a hero when he stopped on his way to work to help a woman who had been in a serious car accident. The woman had no pulse, and Keith Ezell, who works for the VA Medical Center in Cleveland, started CPR immediately. When the paramedics arrived, Ezell stepped aside, and a few seconds later someone shouted “We got a pulse! Good job!” Bystanders started congratulating the nurse, but Ezell didn’t have time to stay — he had to get to work.
Susan Hassmiller, RN
Diana Ruiz, RN
Susan Denavit, RN
Linda MacIntyre, RN
Darlene Curley, RN
Mary Jane Blaustein, RN
“We know in this country there are things called social determinants that are the best indicators of health and well-being,” Hassmiller said. “Factors like education, socioeconomic status, neighborhood safety, access to healthcare services and social and civic engagement are all very important. Nurse heroes are those who know this is true and then act on this knowledge by getting involved to create change in their communities.”

Diana Ruiz, DNP, RN, APHN-BC, was one of 10 nurses who won the award in 2014 based on her involvement in the Texas Team Action Coalition. Ruiz helped the team develop a training program to prepare nurses for service on boards of local agencies and organizations that promote health and wellness. Ruiz also helped to create the first community health department at Medical Center Health System in Odessa, Texas. The department’s 28 caregivers follow patients who are high-risk once they leave the hospital.

“Health doesn’t end at the hospital exit,” Ruiz said. “We will call patients, visit their homes, go to appointments, and help them find resources to seek financial assistance and employment opportunities.”

The nurses who received the award also are participating in a training program to learn presentation and leadership skills that can help them recruit other nurses to be active in promoting health in the community.