May 6 marks the beginning of the 14th annual celebration of National Nurses Week, an idea first brought to President Eisenhower in 1953, approved by President Nixon in 1974, signed into permanence by the American Nurses Association in 1990 and now celebrated by nearly three million practicing nurses and the billions of doctors and patients that depend on them.
But even as we recognize how vital nurses are to the health care industry, the nation is facing a projected shortage of at least 750,000 RNs in the next few years, and that number is growing. As a generation prepares for retirement, the supply of new nurses is insufficient, says Sharon Stoffels, associate professor of nursing at Boise State. Stoffels has been a registered nurse for almost 30 years, and in that time she has seen a lot of positive change in the profession, especially in the issues of gender and cultural diversity. Rather than ruminate on all of the social underpinnings, Stoffels prefers to talk about progress in the 21st century, a time in which people of all ages, races, genders and backgrounds are welcomed to the table.
"We're doing a lot of work with outreach," Stoffels said. "When people look at our brochures, we want to make sure they find a face that looks like them."
To understand the importance of this connection, we must look back on an era when cultural stereotypes were more overt than today. World War II propaganda remains one of the most vivid and illuminating examples, having peppered the public scene with iconic images of sinewy Uncle Sams and rosy-cheeked, bright-eyed women in white. One poster depicts an attractive young woman with beautiful bone structure and cherry-red lips kneeling before an unseen patriot. His cuffs, woven with the stars and stripes, frame her hopeful face as he places a stark white nursing cap in her crown of glossy curls. "Become a Nurse," it says in bold script, "Your Country Needs You." That picture was more effective than the artist could have dreamed, for not only did it draw over 400,000 women into the war effort, it also burned an enduring image on the national psyche. In one way, this vision of a strong, confident woman, equal parts glamour and guts, revised the feminine ideal, but it also put a brand on the profession. Men were doctors, women were nurses, end of story-but more people are beginning to realize the folly of that division.
"Nursing is a scientifically based, analytical profession that appeals across the board. The hand-maiden image has decreased, and we all know that men and women are strong nurturers," said Margaret Kemp. Kemp has been a registered nurse for 28 years and is currently a nurse advisor and recruiter for Boise State's accredited Nursing Department. She works with Stoffels to reach out to every branch of the community for new students, and Kemp has been pleased with the program's growing number of males, now steady at about 25 percent.
"I've never felt that men are out of place in nursing," Kemp said. "I truly believe it's not a gender issue, and we encourage men and minorities to consider nursing as a career because that's the composition of society today. Nurses make up the largest number of health care practitioners, and the more representative we are of the patient population, the better we can serve them." Kemp credits some of the encouraging statistics to growing dissatisfaction with desk jobs, industry crossover and straight economics. "A lot of men are realizing they want to do something where they connect with people," she said.
A prime example of this shift is La Buena Salud, an outreach program directed by Stoffels that connects teams of students with migrant farm-workers. The program, whose name means "Good Health" in Spanish, focuses on the importance of preventative maintenance and general good health practices for a community with limited opportunities for either. Now in its third year, La Buena Salud helps treat thousands of people on a weekly basis, and provides services ranging from comprehensive checkups to interactive workshops about dental hygiene, anger management and physical fitness. It works by breaking students from a variety of fields into teams of four or five, each of which visit three camps every week during the semester.
"Everyone plays an equal role. That's one of our overriding objectives: taking students from various health care disciplines and teaching them how to value each other and work as a team," Stoffels said.
One of these students embodies the next generation of nursing. His name is Joe Ronquillo, and he is a young Latino man about to graduate with a degree in nursing and the admiration of fellow students and professors alike.
"He is compassionate and has a really gentle touch," Stoffels said. "The kids are drawn to him; they push each other off of his lap to get attention-it's like he has some sort of special magic. And he's not doing this because he has to; he's doing it because he wants to. It's about giving back to the community." Stoffels explained that Ronquillo is following in the footsteps of his older brother Marvin, a pediatric nurse at St. Luke's, and that both men "blow the stereotypes out of the water."
On a recent visit to a farm-worker camp in Marsing, Ronquillo and other members of La Buena Salud set up in an old laundry facility. A beautiful little girl named Vanessa rode her bike up to sophomore Brynn Neibaur and greeted her as a friend. More children followed and it became clear that the benefits of La Buena Salud go far beyond field experience.
"The hardest thing is that I don't speak Spanish. One semester doesn't prepare you," laughed sophomore nursing student Julie Carr. "It makes you appreciate what people from other cultures have to deal with when they come to this country." Neibaur agreed that La Buena Salud has given her a vivid perspective on immigrant life, and lessons that have enriched her pursuit of a sociology degree.
"It's sad to see the inadequate conditions our society forces on immigrants. They're trying to make a better life for themselves-that's the American dream-but when they get here, it's not so glorious after all," she said, adding that projects like La Buena Salud make some small impact for the better.
The same can be said for ground breakers like Ronquillo. Although each student is vital to the success of the program, Ronquillo's heritage taps into the idea that people appreciate a familiar face, not to mention a familiar language. Ronquillo is fluent in Spanish and greets each patient with the same gentle authority and friendly handshake.
"Traditional Hispanic males have this machismo thing," he said, "and nursing-the word itself has feminine connotations. But the stereotypes come from people not knowing what it's really about. They think of little hats, skirts and bed pans and don't realize it's a little more complicated than that."
Ronquillio will be one of four male nursing graduates this summer, and he already has a job in pediatrics lined up at St. Luke's Hospital. When asked why he chose nursing over med school, he smiled and said, "There are different paths. Doctors treat diseases, nurses treat people. I'm a people person." Watching him work with people like Stoffels, Carr and Neibaur, it's obvious that not only are men becoming a more important cog in the nursing machine, they are just one example of how diversity is changing the world, one industry at a time.