Nurses have been called many things over the years, and saint, hero, angel, and savior are just several ways they’ve been described. In a misguided sense, nurses have even been unceremoniously sexualized in the form of the tired cliché of the sexy nurse Halloween costume.

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, it became increasingly common to see signs outside hospitals saying something akin to, “Heroes work here.” Is the hero moniker truly helpful to the cause of nursing? Does calling nurses saints, heroes, angels, and saviors help them in any way? I posit that it’s the opposite: using such terms is a dehumanizing misinterpretation of what nurses do and who they truly are. 

Heroes Work Here?

Much praise was heaped upon nurses and other healthcare professionals during the worst months of the pandemic. On many a day throughout those most challenging times, people stood outside of their homes banging pots and pans at the 7 pm change of shift to express gratitude for nurses’ hard work (never mind that it’s the rare nurse who can get out of work at 7 pm to hear such a concert, but it’s the thought that counts). 

Meanwhile, the “heroes work here” banners outside hospitals reiterated the claim of heroism, putting nurses and their colleagues on pedestals that might have felt just a tad uncomfortable and precarious.

So, what’s wrong with the proclamation that heroes work in a given facility? What harm does it do when we tell a nurse they’re a saint in scrubs? What does it say when we place a mantle of superhumanity on those who serve as frontline healthcare professionals, risking their lives in the process? There’s nothing inherently wrong with a sincere expression of gratitude, yet it can sometimes not sit well with those on the receiving end. 

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Superhumans ‘r’ Us

Angels, saints, and heroes are individuals with superhuman traits. They are people whose qualities place them above the powers of mere mortals. They leap tall buildings in a single bound, fly weightless on gossamer wings, and perform miracles and wonders before amazed groups of onlookers. 

While the work of nurses may appear superhuman and saintly to the average layperson, the day-to-day slog of hanging chemo, transferring patients, changing catheters, cleaning up feces, drawing blood, and dressing wounds may not feel so heroic or superhuman to those who perform such duties.

Nurses work on the front lines amidst the muck, mire, and bodily fluids of human life and suffering. And during their work, they can be slapped, punched, kicked, spat on, cursed at, and verbally abused. 

Nurses’ work can cause them to suffer compassion fatigue, burnout, addiction, depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress, and suicidal ideation. Are these superhuman traits and reactions? I would say they’re altogether human. 

While it is simply a game of semantics, the difference between hero, angel, saint, and warrior could not be starker. When we consider angels, saints, and heroes, we might be more prone to think of creatures who have fewer needs than us mortals — these creatures with special powers have more endurance and are more impervious to the slings and arrows of life. By seeing nurses as superhuman, we can dehumanize them. 

Call Us Warriors

Many nurses I’ve spoken with are much more comfortable with the word warrior than the descriptors hero, angel, or saint. They feel that warrior is a more accurate description of what they do and who they are as nurses. Healthcare delivery can feel like a battle – especially during situations like the coronavirus pandemic — and pushing through the worst times in the medical trenches makes the term warrior extremely apt. 

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Heroes of folklore, mythology, and fantasy are mythic, larger-than-life figures who demonstrate superhuman faculties that set them apart. I would venture that few nurses feel larger than life; in fact, most nurses are arguably more fully in touch with the realities of life (and death) in ways that many members of the general public are not.

Nurses are warriors fighting for the good of the whole against disease, illness, injury, and, at times, death itself. They engage in the battle by leveraging their human knowledge, expertise, skill, and compassion acquired through years of study, hard work, suffering, and learning. See them as heroic if you must, but also see them as the righteous warriors they truly are. 

Minority Nurse is thrilled to feature Keith Carlson, “Nurse Keith,” a well-known nurse career coach and podcaster of The Nurse Keith Show as a guest columnist. Check back every other Thursday for Keith’s column.

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