Ways of seeing: Striking nurses deserve support

My daughter and I drove up to Burlington to join the Vermont nurses union on their picket line on the second day of their two-day strike. I love nurses for many reasons, and I wanted to support their efforts to work in hospitals with safe staffing levels and to be paid a living wage.
Here are just a few of the reasons I love nurses:
•  The human body is strong, yet vulnerable. As a yoga teacher, I generally work with bodies that are feeling pretty good, because let’s face it, how many of us would go to yoga class with a broken leg, an acute case of pneumonia, or even just a bad headache? What yoga teachers do for the most part is take bodies that are reasonably fit and try to keep them healthy. We are preventative healthcare providers.
Nurses, on the other hand, deal with the human body at its most weak, compromised and needy. Neonatal Intensive Care nurses help premature infants. Pediatric nurses help tiny babies and toddlers with life threatening illnesses. Critical care nurses help people survive traumatic injuries, and Oncology nurses help us if we should need chemotherapy or radiation treatments for cancer. Palliative Care and Hospice nurses help us at the end of life.
•  The human body can be pretty gross. All of the above mentioned nurses deal with every substance that can come out of a human body. I admit to being pretty squeamish about blood, so I have always known I couldn’t hack it in a medical setting. I admire nurses so much for handling all the yucky aspects of the human body while allowing people to maintain their dignity. Nurses change diapers, empty bedpans, insert catheters and IVs, clean up vomit, change bandages, and they make scared people feel cared for and safe.
•  We are not at our best when we are sick, in pain, or watching our loved ones be sick and in pain. Nurses witness every emotion that human beings experience. Hospitalized patients may feel grief, fear, rage, or loss, and nurses stay there with them. Nurses comfort parents whose babies are sick. Nurses help people say goodbye to dying loved ones. Nurses are there when a family experiences a sudden and traumatic loss.
•  The human body can be heavy. Nurses lift people out of bed when they are too weak to lift themselves. Nurses can even make a bed with a patient IN the bed. Have you ever tried this? A nurse taught me how to do it once. It is not easy! One thing I do know a lot about as a yoga teacher is back pain. Some of the people who suffer the most back pain are people who have physically demanding and stressful jobs. This is one of the reasons the nurses are striking.
Hospitals are understaffed and that not only makes nurses’ jobs more stressful, it makes patient care worse. A fully staffed hospital will obviously be able to provide superior care to patients, and an understaffed hospital is the one where your mom who just had her hip replaced is ringing her call button and the frazzled people on staff aren’t getting to her quickly because they have more urgent things to attend to.
•  A LOT of nurses practice yoga. Why do they carve out the time to come to class? Is it because yoga helps their sore backs? Is it because the practice calms the mind? Is it because nurses recognize the vulnerability of the human body and understand how important it is to make time for self care? Do they practice because the very first principle of yoga, Ahimsa (nonviolence) lines up with the Hippocratic oath: First Do No Harm?
Ever since I learned of the nurses labor dispute last year, I’ve been thinking so much about nurses. I sleep better at night knowing I will be cared for by compassionate people if I fall ill. But the fight for decent health care is playing out on several different battlefields, nationally and locally. We have all watched as Republican lawmakers voted to repeal Obamacare over and over, and we are watching now as they chip away at health care funding, causing the fees for doctors visits and medications to rise higher and higher.
University of Vermont Medical Center CEO Eileen Whalen places herself squarely on the side of those working to deny healthcare to Americans when she states that in spite of last year’s surplus of $70 million, it is unrealistic for Vermont nurses to be paid a living wage. Clearly she believes paying executives exorbitant salaries is more important than ensuring that our nurses be fairly compensated for their difficult jobs.
Every single person reading this will likely rely on a nurse at several points in our life. Can we recognize our vulnerability enough to honor the people who take care of us when we are at our most fragile? Can we recognize the strength that we have when we come together to fight for what is right?
Joanna Colwell is a certified Iyengar Yoga teacher who founded and directs Otter Creek Yoga, in Middlebury’s Marble Works, and lives with her family in East Middlebury. When not practicing or teaching yoga, Joanna enjoys taking walks, cooking, serving on the board of WomenSafe, and working with the Middlebury chapter of Showing Up for Racial Justice. Feedback welcome at: [email protected].

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