The Heartbeat of Health Care


Nurses and nurse-midwives are beacons of compassion for patients worldwide, and it is appropriate — particularly at this time as we fight against the COVID-19 pandemic — that the World Health Organization has designated 2020 as a year to pay tribute to their indispensable role in supporting healthy and productive societies.

In this International Year of the Nurse and Midwife, which honors the 200th anniversary of the birth of Florence Nightingale, the founder of modern nursing, and recognizes the global nursing workforce of 27.9 million, we consider how, throughout the world — from the most impoverished communities to the most glittering cities — nurses embody health care’s core mission to provide skilled and compassionate care to all in need. Nurses take care of the whole patient, and they are advocates on their behalf.

“America’s nurses are the beating heart of our medical system,” said then-President Barack Obama when he addressed the American Nurses Association in 2010. His words are no less true today than they were a decade ago.

UCLA Health’s 3,800 nurses are in the vanguard of patient care every day, 24 hours a day, to improve health, alleviate suffering and deliver acts of kindness. Their consistent presence is an enduring connection for patients, their families and the broader health care team.

Natalie Wray is an assistant nurse manager in the ICU of Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, where many patients with COVID-19 are being treated, and she says that while delivering care during this pandemic confronts nurses with extreme challenges, “I believe that this is our profession’s greatest moment.” She acknowledges that health care workers have concerns about their personal exposure to COVID and the possibility of bringing it home to their loved ones, “but the most important thing that I believe we, as nurses, can do for a frightened patient is to be present. I may not be able to provide the perfect words for a patient when they’re scared, but I can bear witness to their experience and extend a compassion and respect that goes beyond words. They know they are not alone.”

Natalie Wray, assistant nurse manager and Clinical Nurse Specialist, Yuhan Kao

Her words echo those of the poet Walt Whitman, who served as a nurse during the Civil War and who later reflected on the experience: I thread my way through the hospitals/The hurt and wounded I pacify with soothing hand/I sit by the restless all the dark night/Some are so young, some suffer so much/I recall the experience sweet and sad.

The International Year of the Nurse and Midwife and May’s National Nurses Month are taking place at an unprecedented time. The COVID-19 pandemic is challenging every segment of health care on global, regional and local levels. The WHO takes note in its first-ever “State of the World’s Nursing” report, which came out in April, that “our emergency preparedness and response capacity is being tested by the current COVID-19 outbreak and mass population displacement caused by conflict,” and that “nurses provide vital care in each of these circumstances.”

“We go into uncertain situations every day and continue to do our jobs,” says Brittany Uglesich, a nurse in the medical telemetry unit of Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center. “The bravery of nursing is amazing.”

It can be a difficult and emotionally taxing job, made more so under the current circumstance, with so many patients needing intense care. But because of their constant contact with patients and families, nurses continue to be in a unique position to identify opportunities to improve the experience of patients. Those not working directly with COVID patients also are experiencing new challenges and finding ways to adapt to maintain the delivery of quality care and benefit their patients.

For many pregnant women, the pandemic has elevated their feelings of uncertainty and fear. Shadman Habibi, a certified nurse midwife and supervisor for the UCLA Midwifery Service, reassures her expectant mothers that their risk of exposure to sick patients is minimal when they come for visits at UCLA Medical Center, Santa Monica. “We reassure them that all the providers and nurses are wearing masks and no sick person is coming to work,” she says. “We explain that in the midwife clinic, we only see healthy pregnant women and that we schedule patients so that no one is waiting in the waiting room.”

Habibi says that navigating patients through the pandemic has driven home the value of the role she plays. “My work in women’s health care, pregnancy and childbirth — empowering women to have self-confidence and realize their full potential — has been very rewarding,” she says.

As our UCLA nurses and their colleagues throughout the country engage with patients on the frontline of this pandemic to ease suffering and save lives, take a moment to recognize their essential role, and, in this International Year of the Nurse and Midwife and National Nurses Month, to honor and thank them.