Coronavirus Advisory: The essence of nursing in a COVID-19 world

By Amy M. Hall, PhD, RN, CNE
Professor & Dean School of Nursing
Franciscan Missionaries of Our Lady University

The COVID-19 pandemic has touched every person’s life physically, emotionally, socially, and economically. The U.S. Labor Department reported this week that over 20.5 million American jobs were lost in April 2020, and the U.S. unemployment rate has soared to 14.7% as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. This pandemic is like no other disaster America has experienced. Because of its size, a typical disaster does not usually have a profound effect on every U.S. citizen. States who are affected the most by a disaster usually turn to other, less affected states for assistance. But this is not our current reality. Not only has the entire U.S. been impacted by the COVID-19 crisis, it has affected the entire world.

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Crisis creates uncertainty. However, in a world full of uncertainty, anything is possible. During times of crisis and uncertainty, which may include lay-offs or job loss, many adults begin to consider returning to school to work on a career change. High school students often find themselves thinking about careers they might be interested in pursuing after graduation as well. People frequently find themselves reflecting on what they have been doing, what brings them joy, and what is important to them. If you or your prospective college student have been thinking about the future, you are not alone.

What Is the Difference Between a Career and a Vocation? 

Although your career is important—it involves earning an income to support yourself and your family—understanding your vocation is essential. Your vocation is a calling that allows you to use your gifts, abilities and passions as you dream and achieve your life’s purpose. Your vocation is not static; it is always changing as you encounter new experiences and move through life. It also is not limited to your job or your career. Your vocation is tied to your relationships, what you think is important, and whatever gives your life meaning.

Here are some questions you might ask yourself to reflect on your vocation:

• What are my strengths and my gifts?
• What brings me joy?
• What kind of work should I be doing right now in my life?
• What contributions am I making, or would I like to make to the world right now?

When you reflect on your vocation, do not focus on finding your dream job or a career that will make you insanely wealthy. Instead, consider how you can grow and live your life in a way that brings peace, satisfaction and a deep sense of fulfillment.

What About My Career?

After taking time to reflect on your vocation, you may find yourself thinking about your career. After all, many of us spend a lot of time in our work, and it is important to have a job or a career that matches our passions and gifts with our life’s work. Whether you are considering your first career or a career change, there are many questions you can ask yourself to determine how to align your strengths and passions with your career, such as:

• What are my personal values?
• How do I find happiness at work?
• What role does my career play in the kind of life I want to live?
• What do I want to get better at doing and what new skills do I want to learn?
• What opportunities excite me?
• What am I willing to give up?
• What does the job market look like?
• What additional education or advanced training do I need?

According to a 2018 report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average person changes jobs 10-15 times with an average of 12 changes within their career. So, if this reflection has caused you to consider changing your job, you are not alone. Studies show that changing jobs every 3-4 years allows for a chance to enhance professional credentials and earn a higher income.

Is a Career in Healthcare for You? 

Unsung heroes emerge during times of disaster, and this pandemic is no different. The front-line health care workers have been praised time and time again for their selflessness and call to action to help patients and their families affected by COVID-19. Many healthcare workers see their careers as a calling due to their desire to serve others. Thus, their vocation and their career are innately intertwined.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projected that employment in healthcare occupations will grow 14% from 2018 to 2028, which equates to about 1.9 million new jobs. This projected job growth is much faster than the average of other occupations. Additionally, the median annual wage for healthcare workers, such as registered nurses, respiratory therapists, and medical lab scientists, is higher than the median annual wage for other occupations. Healthcare roles that require advanced degrees, such as Family Nurse Practitioners, Nurse Anesthetists, Physical Therapists, and Physician Assistants, have even greater earning potential.

Are You Ready to Join the Nursing Profession? 

Of all the healthcare professions during this pandemic, nurses have frequently been singled out as the most instrumental part of the healthcare team, which is not surprising. Nurses are the healthcare professionals who stay with patients at their bedside, helping patients and their families navigate through times of utmost crisis. Nurses care for patients at the beginning of life, at the end of life, and everywhere in between.

For the past 18 years, registered nurses have been ranked the most trusted and ethical profession by the American public in the Gallup Poll. Nurses are in good company. The next highest-ranking professions in the 2020 Gallup Poll included engineers, medical doctors, pharmacists, dentists, police officers, and college teachers.

Being a nurse commands respect. When nurses speak, other people listen. Whenever a nurse enters a patient’s room, a healthcare clinic or a shelter during a disaster, the energy changes. An often chaotic or anxious environment becomes more peaceful and settled, because patients and families know that they have someone on their side who will advocate for them, make sure they understand their treatment, and ensure they receive the best care possible.

Entering the nursing profession is an honor. Choosing to become a nurse is not a decision you should take lightly. If you ask nurses why they chose nursing as a career, they will usually respond that they felt called to the nursing profession. Nurses are passionate about caring for others, especially when they are at their most vulnerable. Nurses are innovative, creative and good at solving problems, often going above and beyond what is expected of them. They must work ethically. Nurses know themselves well, being aware of their own beliefs, values and biases. They also are not afraid to make ethical decisions, even when those decisions are not the most popular.

Nursing is an amazing profession. There are so many paths a nurse’s career can take. Many people imagine nurses sitting at a patient’s bedside working with doctors to help patients make critical decisions about their health. Although many nurses provide vital patient care at the bedside, nurses are employed in a variety of settings including hospitals, outpatient clinics, public health departments and schools.

Some nurses become nursing faculty, teaching students how to become nurses, while others choose to become and advanced practice nurse such as being a nurse practitioner, a nurse midwife or a nurse anesthetist. The roles and responsibilities of nurses vary based on where they work. Despite the setting in which a nurse works, nurses share certain personality traits and characteristics that led them to become a nurse. Reflecting on these qualities may help you decide if a career in nursing is right for you.

Compassion & Empathy 

Compassion and empathy are central to nursing. Having empathy means you need to be able to understand the thoughts and feelings of your patients and meet your patients wherever they are, without personally experiencing them. Nurses provide care to every patient, no matter their illnesses, their socioeconomic status, their values or their beliefs. Being able to communicate with others and establish therapeutic trusting relationships is key to nursing practice.


However, if caring were enough, anyone could be a nurse. Having a broad knowledge base and a passion to continuously learn is just as important as compassion and empathy. Being a nurse means that you need to be able to understand information from a variety of disciplines including physical and social science, math, art, communication, culture and history.

Nurses learn how to synthesize complex information to provide evidence-based care to ensure patients achieve the best outcomes. Our understanding of the human experience is constantly evolving. New scientific, medical and nursing research is constantly being discovered, changing the information and evidence used to make safe and effective decisions about patient care. Thus, what nurses learn while they are in nursing school may be outdated shortly after they graduate. A solid knowledge base creates the competence nurses require to make critical informed decisions that affect the lives of their patients every day.

Flexibility, Patience & Creativity 

The healthcare environment is constantly changing. Nurses work in stressful environments that change sometimes on a moment’s notice. A patient’s health status can change in minutes. Thus, nurses need to be able to quickly assess a situation and make informed critical decisions about a patient’s care in seconds. Even if a nurse works on the same patient care unit for 5 years, every hour of every shift is different because every patient is different.

How patients and their families respond to care varies because people are all unique. Therefore, it is essential for nurses to constantly assess their patients and use the assessment data they gather to generate, implement, evaluate and make changes to a patient’s plan of care based on how the patient and family responds.

In addition to changing patient conditions, the healthcare environment is constantly changing. The laws and policies that govern healthcare evolve over time. Additionally, nursing care is based on the best evidence, which means as we begin to generate new knowledge, standards of care and treatment decisions change. Thus, creative problem-solving, being flexible and having the ability to change are some of the most important characteristics of nurses.

At the same time, it is important to be patient. Nurses often go into their workday with an idea of what is going to happen, but in reality, anything can happen. Think about the COVID-19 pandemic. Healthcare dramatically changed overnight. Patients with COVID-19 started coming to their doctor’s offices, to the emergency room and to urgent care in large numbers with highly complex needs.

Initially, we did not fully understand the implication of the pandemic. We still don’t understand it completely today. As the pandemic has progressed, vast changes in the healthcare delivery system occurred and will continue to occur well into the future. Nurses are key in helping make decisions to ensure that patients and their families will receive the best care possible in a time filled with uncertainty and fear. What nurses are being asked to do and how they provide patient care now has often drastically changed in a relatively short period of time.


All nurses must emanate humility to effectively care for others and have a successful nursing career. Having humility does not mean you are weak. Rather, having humility means that you have a modest view of your own importance. People who have humility are not obsessed by themselves. They do not have to win every argument, and they do not always have to be right. When you recognize that your actions are meant to serve others, you display humility. True humility neither exaggerates nor minimizes; it accepts.

Nurses are held to high standards. With these expectations, making an error, especially one that can affect a patient’s care, adds to the stress of nursing practice. Nurses are human, and humans are not perfect. Thus, nurses need to be able to admit they don’t know everything and seek information from others in order to make sure their patients receive the best care possible. Nurses understand they are no more important than anyone else. Nurses approach the most menial tasks with joy. They celebrate their successes with others and see failure as a way to grow and change. Nurses understand they are part of a larger team committed to caring for others.

Nurses have been in the forefront of tackling the COVID-19 pandemic. They have always risen to the challenge to serve others with the greatest compassion. They care for a person’s entire well-being. Nurses are called both through their vocation and their career to display teamwork, justice, compassion, integrity, trust and leadership, regardless if they are providing care at the beginning, middle, or end of life.

Do you need more information to decide if you want to become a nurse? If so, there are a lot of resources available. The Johnson & Johnson “Why Be a Nurse” website is a great place to start. It also might be helpful to shadow a nurse for a day or talk with people who are nurses and ask why they became nurses. Nurses practice in an imperfect world. Like other professions, their jobs are not always wonderful, and they often experience roadblocks or barriers that sometimes seem insurmountable. But at the essence of nursing is the ability to persist. To speak up when others can’t or won’t. To come up with solutions to difficult problems when no one else can. To be grateful for others, even when it’s hard to show appreciation. To lead when the path is not clear. And to make a difference in people’s lives when others no longer have the energy to act. 

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