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Andrew Coates: Celebrating Our Nurse Colleagues

I practice hospital medicine.

Recently the nurses at our hospital voted to give me an award. They told me about it, discreetly, one by one, ahead of the official notice from the administration. These caregiving colleagues, upon whom our patients in the hospital depend every day, took the time to let me know that they also depend upon me. Wow. A true honor.

We doctors organize and order plans of care, diagnostic tests and specific therapies, adapted to individual needs and immediate circumstances. Physicians, in hospital medicine and in every specialty, have a very challenging role.

To do a good job it often seems that we have be more thorough than smart, for thoroughness combined with insight is what can best protect patients from unexpected events. Being thorough also means counting upon our colleagues in nursing and every allied caregiving discipline.

This intellectual dimension is central to a physician's life, constantly learning and teaching, ever struggling to confront what it is we don't know. When we say that physicians embrace lifelong learning we sometimes forget that true learning comes with facing our self-doubts.

Yet shouldering this responsibility is compensated with the privileges of professional autonomy and collaboration in an atmosphere of mutual respect from our colleagues. That is the life of doctors.

Nurses have a different life. Our patients who come to the hospital sick, depend upon nurses in the most crucial, personal ways.

We might paraphrase what the great American writer Zora Neale Hurston once said of woman's relationship to the world. In comparison to doctors, nurses are "the mule" of the hospital.

Nurses shoulder the burden of caregiving physically, in the moment, when it comes to serious illness. In human life, in sickness like in health, things do not always go as planned. No matter how things go, nurses are there to respond, minute by minute, at the bedside.

In turn, participating in the multidisciplinary effort to help our patients brings its own reward. Our shared efforts, the human relationships among caregivers, adds meaning to our lives as well as those of our patients, for ultimately there is no mind-body duality, but our best human effort, combined. Patients and physicians, for different reasons, depend upon nurses in a profound way, at every step.

The hospital can be such an awful, frightening place, yet when we're joined in common cause, helping another human being, we find ourselves compelled to be there, loving our role. Seeing hospital care this way helps explain why we need to protect the relationships and efforts of the caregivers in order to protect the patient's health.

This is an important reason why we need a national health program that will provide for every patient. So many private interests, each with perverse financial incentives, presently invade, warp, thwart, and even poison our caregiving relationships.

But let's save that for another day.

For today, let's savor the mutual recognition of caregivers, doing the best we can, together, under the circumstances.

Dr. Andrew Coates practices internal medicine in upstate New York. He is President of Physicians for a National Health Program.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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