National Nurses Week: Celebrating Filipino nurses’ contributions to the US

The United States will observe National Nurses Week in the coming week with festivities beginning on Saturday, May 6 through May 12, the birthday of Florence Nightingale, the founder of modern nursing.

Back in the 1980s, the celebration for nurses was only limited to a day on May 6, known as National Nurses Day. But in 1990, the American Nurses Association (ANA) created the week-long observance. By 1994, the organization moved to commemorate the entire week annually as a way to recognize the contributions the 3.1 million registered nurses (RNs) continue to make to American society.

This year, the ANA has designated the week’s theme as “Nursing: the Balance of Mind, Body, and Spirit,” which is meant to encourage nurses to focus on their own physical, intellectual, emotional, social, spiritual, personal and professional wellbeing. By taking care of themselves, they, in turn, will be able to provide an extraordinary level of care to others.

Leading up to National Nurses Week, we dedicate this issue of the Asian Journal to Filipino and Filipino-American nurses in the United States, given the sheer number of those who have gravitated toward the field.

“Nurses are highly valued by patients. After all, in hospitals, nursing homes, managed long-term facilities, and other care centers, the nurses provide most of the medical care and direct, personal and face-to-face provision of care, interventions and bundles of care towards patient recovery and rehabilitation. Nurses are the ones who spend 90 percent of their time with patients who get to know their nurses much more so than most of the doctors. And, the patients are always very grateful to the nurses,” said Edmund Mercado, a board member of Philippine Nurses Association of New York.

The history of Filipinos migrating to the United States to be trained as nurses stems back to the 1900s. Some stayed in the country, while others returned to the Philippines to put their expertise to practice and set up nursing schools and programs.

“The Philippines has sent nurses to America since it was a U.S. colony in the early 1900s; today, nearly one out of every five Filipino women in the U.S. works as a nurse,” according to a report by Quartz. (In California alone, 20.3 percent of nurses identify as Filipino.)

What draws Filipinos and Fil-Ams to nursing? Is it because caring for others, especially those who are sick and aging, is innate in Filipino culture?

“Filipino nurses excel in the United States because caring for others — especially our elderly and family — is already a quintessential part of our culture,” shared Kathleen Reyes, a registered nurse in Southern California. “Having a dynamic with our own families that includes extended relatives and our elderly has formed our nursing skills of caring even before we pass our NCLEX. Filipino nurses are important because we do give that unique and deeply authentic [tender loving care].”

For Reyes — as is the case for many Filipino families that have multi-generations of nurses — caring for others “was a family business.”

“My family has a medical background and growing up I witnessed my parents share their stories of working in the hospital. It was always interesting hearing stories about my dad working night shifts and my mom loving her job in the NICU,” she said. “I also grew up seeing my mom develop her residential care facilities and I was able to visit the grandmas and grandpas at the houses.”

Mike A., a dialysis nurse in California’s Bay Area, added that his inspiration to become a nurse was from “[his] innate desire to help people and care for them in times of sickness.”

For Mercado, his career as a nurse came later in life after being motivated and living among other Filipino in the profession.

“In 2009, I became a nurse — a noble, heroic, and according to some annual polls, the most trustworthy profession in America, more trustworthy than a priest,” he shared.

Overall, Filipino nurses have reputations for being hardworking, hospitable, and compassionate.

“Such is the importance of nurses in the Philippines, as well as in America and all over the world, because without caring, without all the compassion in a largely unaware world, then all is worth nothing,” Mercado said.

Visit any hospital or medical facility in the U.S., and it’s seldom that you will not encounter a Filipino nurse.

“Nurses are the backbone of medical field.  They are the first line of defense.  Filipino nurses usually are doing the hardest and [most] challenging work in the hospital (i.e., telemetry, ICU, rehab),” nurse Ellen M., 41, said.

Menchu de Luna Sanchez, a nurse who has been working at NYU Langone Medical Center in New York for 20 years, said that Filipino nurses remain to be “an integral part of the health care system in the U.S.”

“Health care professionals still look for the Filipino nurses to be in their department. Filipino nurses are hardworking, patient, and always tendering the trademark of Filipinos: ‘tender, loving and caring,’” she shared.

Sanchez, especially, displayed those traits during Hurricane Sandy in the fall of 2012. The Filipina nurse was part of the transport unit of the hospital that helped intensive care nurses carry critically ill premature babies down nine flights of stairs to safety after a water surge knocked out the hospital’s electrical supply and backup generators.

For her heroic efforts, she was honored by former President Barack Obama in his 2013 State of the Union address, in which we said “we should follow the example” of Sanchez.

Given the long hours and stressful conditions that nurses endure, the ANA has several ideas to mark National Nurses Week so that they may be rightfully recognized, including encouraging nurses to wear an “RN pin” or holding special celebrations to honor nurses in the community for their heroic acts, years of service, and commitment to the profession.

However, for many nurses, a simple ‘thank you’ goes a long way.

“Helping a nurse get some rest and relaxation would be a thoughtful gesture. We are on our feet, we are pulled in every direction during our shifts so some time to relax would be appreciated. But really, a meaningful greeting card or a sweet and simple ‘thank you’ when you see us is enough,” Reyes said.

Tess Dela Cruz, an RN for over three decades and a current nurse care manager in New York, further added, however, that commemorating nurses shouldn’t just stop on May 12.

“People and communities should honor [and] pay tribute to nurses [all] year long. Not only on Nurses Week, but every day,” she said.

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