A dramatic reading of Sophocles’ Antigone to help frame powerful, guided discussions about challenges faced by nurses.
About this event
A groundbreaking project by and for nurses, The Nurse Antigone presents dramatic readings of Sophocles’ Antigone on Zoom—featuring professional actors and a chorus of frontline nurses—to help frame powerful, guided discussions about the unique challenges faced by nurses before, during, and after the COVID-19 pandemic. Antigone, an ancient play about a young woman who puts everything on the line to do what she believes is right, dramatizes the heavy cost of silencing and marginalizing caregivers, especially during times of crisis. By performing Sophocles’ play for diverse audiences, including nurses as well as concerned citizens, The Nurse Antigone aims to generate compassion, awareness, connection, and much-needed healing, while celebrating and advocating for nurses at this critical juncture in the history of their profession.
Support for our digital programming is provided, in part, by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
Featuring performances by Margaret Atwood, Tracie Thoms (Rent), Taylor Schilling (Orange is the New Black), Ato Blankson-Wood (Detroit), Bill Camp (The Queen’s Gambit), Cherlaine Lasse (Registered Nurse, IV Therapy, Neonatal Intensive Care), Amy Smith (Nurse Practitioner, Northwell Health, Hofstra University), and New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams.
The Nurse Antigone will take place on Zoom Webinar and can be accessed on personal devices. The event Zoom link will be distributed via email and available to registered attendees starting 2 days prior to the event.
Community panelists will kick off the discussion with their gut responses to what resonated with them across time
We will open the discussion to the audience, facilitated by Bryan Doerries. During the discussion, please raise your hand using the button at the bottom center of the screen. If called upon, you will be promoted to speak and you will be visible and heard by the entire audience for the duration of your comments. If you would prefer not to be seen, please disable your video.
The nursing profession has been riding a roller coaster these past two years as we lived with the pandemic.
In the beginning:
The World Health Organization designated 2020 the Year of the Nurse and Midwife spotlighting the profession internationally
Nurses were applauded by New Yorkers who stood on their balconies or hung out the windows of their high-rise apartments every evening at 7 pm to show appreciation for the care nurses gave the growing numbers of COVID patients
News coverage centered on the plight of the bedside nurse dealing with daily death and inadequate supplies along with the chronic nursing shortage
Stories surfaced in the media not only about nurses but written by nurses
Nurses were getting the attention they had long lacked and their contribution to the health of our population was being recognized
When the 7 pm applause from New York City residents faded, nurses still held the attention of the public into 2021. Media coverage showing nurses treating their acutely ill patients led many to seek nursing degrees.
We continue to see nurses leave the profession due to burnout, a persistent problem exacerbated by challenging working conditions. The industry standard of 12-hour work schedules may be more efficient for the hospitals than the nurses.
What we found was that any time after 12 hours, the medical errors that nurses were involved in started to escalate dramatically. And the reason that this was important is we found in our study that most nurses that were scheduled to work 12 hours really were there 13 or 14 hours. Linda Aiken, Conditions that are causing burnout among nurses were a problem before the pandemic,NPR, January 7, 2022.
An additional problem for nurses is that they are pulled away from the bedside to do non-nursing tasks, such as patient status documentation. Sandy Summers, The Truth About Nursing, has suggested that nurses need secretaries or assistants to do this burdensome chore. To this, I can only add Amen.
Going forward into 2022 I am cautiously optimistic, given that the pandemic has demonstrated that nursing does make a positive difference in the health care of individuals and communities, we will begin to see corrections to the problems stated above.
I’ve signed onto The Blogging from A to Z April Challenge 2021.
The challenge is to blog the whole alphabet in April and write at least 100 words on a topic that corresponds to the letter of the day.
Every day, excluding Sundays, I’m blogging about Places I Have Been. The last post will be on Friday, April 30 when I finally focus on the letter Z.
M: Medical Intensive Care
I turned down the position of head nurse at the University of Chicago Hospital. Among the nurses hired to work in the new unit, I was the most qualified. I had been the head nurse of the newly opened Coronary Care Unit run by the New Jersey College of Medicine and Dentistry at the Newark Hospital in New Jersey and, later, I worked as a staff nurse in the CCU in Holy Cross Hospital in Silver Spring, Maryland.
Now, I was a mother of two small children, ages two and four, and the sole wage earner because my husband was in school full time. Luckily, my upstairs neighbor in the married student building where we lived, was a teacher, had two daughters around the same ages as my kids and wanted to trade off childcare. She worked part-time days. I could work part-time nights. Our arrangement would work seamlessly.
So, I turned down the head nurse offer. Working half-time: two nights (11 p.m. to 7 a.m.) one week and three nights the next, meant that I didn’t have the responsibility that goes into opening a new unit (been there, done that) or the aggravation of administration on top of delivering nursing care. Besides, my salary for working part-time nights was greater than that of a full-time head nurse position.
I’ve signed onto The Blogging from A to Z April Challenge 2021.
The challenge is to blog the whole alphabet in April and write at least 100 words on a topic that corresponds to the letter of the day.
Every day, excluding Sundays, I’m blogging about Places I Have Been. The last post will be on Friday, April 30 when I finally focus on the letter Z.
G: Governors State University
I went back to school for my baccalaureate degree in nursing when I was in my late 30’s. I’d been a nurse for twelve years and was eager to increase my skill level and deepen my professional knowledge.
The college was recently built, close to my home and had an Olympic size swimming pool run by the YMCA. In my spare time, I became a certified lifeguard—a personal challenge not a career choice. I was still a nurse but now if my patients were drowning, I would save them.
The best part was that Governors State University didn’t issue grades. That’s not a typo. GSU issued units of credits/competences. I had the freedom to simply enjoy the process of mastering new information. It was a sublime experience.
Unfortunately, under pressure, GSU reverted to a traditional grading system soon after I graduated.
Back in the 70s we rented a townhouse in Arlington, Virginia that was haunted.
Now what made me remember this? Maybe because I, like many others, have been fixated on food while sequestered in my home over this past year due to the pandemic. Food and kitchens and houses. Now there’s a connection. Right?
Back in the 70s, I was young and energetic and loved to cook and entertain—even though I had a toddler and worked part time in the recovery room at a local hospital. Some of my best creations came from that tiny kitchen in the townhouse. My husband and I often hosted dinner parties for the other young families who lived in our cul-de-sac. Once, inviting several couples, I made my husband’s favorite meal: Sauerbraten, sweet and sour red cabbage, potato dumplings and, from scratch, Black Forest Cake. Foodies out there will know that Sauerbraten marinates for five days and then is cooked long and slow and Black Forest Cake is a bear to make. Not to mention the challenge of that cramped kitchen.
Back to the haunted townhouse. First, you have to know that we moved into a friend’s townhouse. Karl and his family outgrew their two-bedroom house and moved next door to a three-bedroom. He suggested we move into his vacated rental. We loved the idea of being close to our friends and having more room than our one-bedroom basement apartment, especially since I was expecting a second baby.
On February 25th in the New York Times, two stories appeared about nurses. Both sobering. Both timely. Both essential.
In my last post, I celebrated the fact that although the pandemic is killing scores of people and putting a strain on resources, including health care personnel, nurses have been in the forefront of the media getting the recognition that they have long deserved. And more nurses are speaking out by telling their stories. Long overdue.
However, the two stories in the NYT need to be read/viewed. One is by Theresa Brown who I have many times spot-lighted here because of her accurate assessment (my view) of nursing issues. A nurse herself, she has been calling attention to the nursing profession in the media and through her books.
Brown’s piece: Covid-19 Is “Probably Going to End My Career,” is an exposé of what is terribly wrong in the profession and what should be done. She writes bravely and honestly about the precarious state of organized nursing.
The second article, One I.C.U. Two nurses with cameras, is written, not by a nurse, but by a photojournalist. He filmed a fifteen-minute video that is raw footage of two nurses working with dying Covid patients in the ICU. Unvarnished, compelling and poignant. It’s a must watch that shows exactly what nurses experience during their shifts.
I’ve attached the links to both essays. The fifteen-minute video is imbedded in both.
Dominated by political turmoil and the COVID-19 Pandemic, this past year has been a roller coaster ride with few brief moments of slow travel interspersed with deep dives of fright and foreboding. The highs that I have enjoyed come in part from the increased attention given to nurses. I have long complained that the nursing profession has been mostly invisible to the public eye, media and policy making sectors. The increase in visibility and status of nurses in these turbulent times looks to me like a glass half-full.
I celebrate all the recent recognition direct towards nurses. When have nurses spoken up in great numbers for their profession, their practice, their patients and for their contribution to the world-wide challenge to defeat of the COVID-19 Pandemic? When have nurses received so much positive media awareness? Been frequently appointed to expert panels along with physicians and other health care professionals? Interviewed prominently by the news media? Featured favorably on TV shows?
How much of a coincidence was it that 2020 was designated by the World Health Organization as the Year of the Nurse and the Nurse Midwife?
In reviewing my posts of the past year, I have pulled out the ones that show increased focus on the nursing profession. I enjoyed revisiting them and am hopeful that the positive attention showered on the nursing profession continues.
Thank you for your openness to representation of nurses on the Biden-Harris coronavirus advisory panel. Nurses deliver most skilled health care and have valuable insight into what patients and the healthcare system need. So plans for national solutions will be more effective with their input. Below we propose nurses for your consideration, in sub-categories that address particular needs, based on recommendations from the many nurses we have consulted as well as my own experience providing ICU care to Covid patients.
As a preliminary note, while I understand that there are many physicians on the task force, they can’t represent nursing because it is a distinct, autonomous profession with a different scope of practice. In general, physicians focus on the disease process, while nurses focus on how humans react to disease, including patient education. And of course, the U.S. has struggled with Covid-19 relative to many other nations not so much because of the disease itself but because of how humans have reacted to it.
I understand that some have described the inclusion of different types of physicians on the panel as taking an interdisciplinary approach. However, we believe a truly effective interdisciplinary approach includes other types of health professionals, such as respiratory therapists, social workers, occupational and physical therapists, pharmacists, and of course nurses.
Below we introduce nurses for your consideration who are from different fields and would provide unique perspectives to the Covid advisory panel.
1. Experts in infection control
Although there is no shortage of infection control professionals on the current advisory panel, infection control nurses could give a more on-the-ground perspective to better address how people can live more safely with Covid.
Jason Farley, RN, PhD, MSN, MPH, is a John Hopkins University (JHU) professor who mobilized resources to help coordinate the response to Covid-19 in the Baltimore community, including JHU schools and hospitals, while continuing to play a leadership role in international scientific endeavors. His work has encompassed testing, addressing the needs of the vulnerable (e.g., getting pulse oximeters into people’s homes), and the stigma of infectious diseases in the community.
Ann Kurth, RN, PhD, CNM, MPH, is Dean of Yale University School of Nursing, an epidemiologist and nurse-midwife. She chairs the National Academy of Medicine Board on Global Health, and her research focuses on HIV, reproductive health, and strengthening the global health system. Dean Kurth’s work has been funded by NIH, Gates Foundation, UNAIDS, CDC, and HRSA. She chaired the 190+ member Consortium of Universities for Global Health and has published over 200 peer-reviewed papers.
George Allen, RN, PhD, is the Director of Infection Prevention at New York Methodist Hospital, and author of Infection Control: A Practical Guide for Health Care Facilities, and Infection Prevention in the Perioperative Setting: Zero Tolerance for Infections, an Issue of Perioperative Nursing Clinics. He is a Clinical Assistant Professor at SUNY and a force for improving policies to address infection control in hospitals.
Sharon Vanairsdale, RN, DNP, is the Program Director for the Serious Communicable Diseases Unit at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta. She manages unit readiness and hospital preparedness for patients with Ebola, Lassa fever, and other special pathogens. She coordinates clinical operations, staff safety, and patient outcomes. She is also the Director for Education within the National Ebola Training and Education Center, a federally funded collaborative between Emory, Nebraska Medicine, and New York Health and Hospital-Bellevue.
2. Experts in health care disparities
Considerable data shows that Covid has had a particularly severe impact on communities of color. Many nurses focus on health disparities, including how to deliver care to underserved populations.
Norma Graciela Cuellar, RN, PhD, is editor-in-chief of the Journal of Transcultural Nursing, Professor of Nursing at the University of Alabama and immediate past-president of the National Association of Hispanic Nurses. She has also researched Complementary and Alternative Health Care, which many members of the public embrace and it would be helpful to have these therapies addressed in regard to Covid.
Sheldon D. Fields, RN, PhD, NP, researches health care disparities, focusing on preventing HIV/AIDS in men of color. He also advised Senator Barbara Mikulski during the passage of the Affordable Care Act. He is Associate Dean for Equity and Inclusion at Pennsylvania State University.
Vickie Mays, PhD, MSPH, is a UCLA professor and clinical psychologist with a public health degree (and in fact, she is the one person on our list who is not a nurse). She directs the 60-person NIH-funded BRITE Center for Science, Research & Policy, working to eliminate physical and mental health disparities and reducing vaccine hesitancy in racial/ethnic minority populations. Dr. Mays has been working with members of Congress on a bill that would require better data on the race and ethnicity of people affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. She is also conducting research on creating better models to predict the spread of COVID-19, in order to reduce the number of infections and deaths in Black communities.
3. Experts in managing and improving clinical nursing environments
It is common for nurses to be excluded from decision-making panels, even though they are the ones delivering most of the skilled care. An overwhelming number of people who wrote us urged that the panel include direct care nurses and their advocates so they will have a voice in national policy.
Bonnie Castillo, RN, is Executive Director of National Nurses United, where she is also director of the Registered Nurse Response Network, a disaster relief program that has engaged in recovery efforts after various natural disasters. In 2020, Castillo was named to the TIME 100 Most Influential People of 2020. She would bring the perspective of direct-care nurses
Mary O’Neil Mundinger, RN, DrPH, Dean Emerita, Columbia University School of Nursing, has been a pioneer in the development of nurse practitioner practice and she is one of its strongest representatives.
Hilda Ortiz-Morales, RN, PhD, NP, is a direct care nurse practitioner at an infectious disease clinic at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx. Ninety percent of her patients are from diverse backgrounds, and this is a common feature of nurse practitioners’ practice.
Dave Hanson, RN, MSN, is a clinical nurse specialist who works to protect patients by fostering quality care environments where nurses can focus on the care only they can deliver—bringing in ancillary staff to do the rest. He is a dynamic leader with a reputation for team building, a collaborator and an extraordinary role model for nurses who strive to advance the profession and quality of patient care.
4. Expert in occupational health and protecting the workforce
So far roughly 2,000 health workers in the US have died from Covid, including many nurses, and a colleague of mine just last week. We need a strong occupational health focus to protect our health professionals and our healthcare system.
Bonnie Rogers, RN, DrPH, is an occupational health researcher and Chairperson of the NIOSH National Occupational Research Agenda Liaison Committee. She has served on numerous Institute of Medicine (IOM) committees, including Vice Chairperson for the Protection for Healthcare Workers in the Workplace Against Novel H1N1 Influenza A. She is currently a member of the first IOM standing committee on Personal Protective Equipment for Workplace Safety and Health. She completed several terms as an appointed member of the National Advisory Committee on Occupational Safety and Health and was recently elected Vice President of the International Commission on Occupational Health.
5. Experts in rural health
Many of the communities with critically high rates of Covid infection are now rural ones. Many nurses focus on care for underserved rural populations.
Mary Wakefield, RN, PhD, served as Health Resources and Services Administration in the Obama administration, supporting community health clinics. In her final two years she was Acting Deputy Secretary of HHS. She now directs the Center for Rural Health (CRH) at the University of North Dakota, strengthening the healthcare workforce, increasing health equity, and providing care services to patients who are geographically isolated, or economically or medically vulnerable.
6. Expert in mental health support for the public
Mental health care is critical in addressing Covid, not only because of the virus’s significant neurological effects, but also because the public at large has struggled with the challenges of staying home, lack of contact with family and friends, and overseeing children’s education.
Ukamaka Oruche, RN, PhD developed six innovative educational products for children with behavioral challenges during the Covid crisis, as well as self-care guides for parents, frontline nurses, and underserved communities. The videos can be seen at Be Well Indiana. Dr. Oruche can help guide public mental health wellness in the time of Covid.
7. Expert in palliative care
It’s not clear what was happening in this pit in El Paso, except that the patients surely needed far less CPR and far more palliative care. Hospitals and patients need more help putting a palliative care plan into action when death from Covid is the only realistic outcome.
Betty Ferrell, RN, PhD is expert in how to provide compassionate care to dying patients and their caregivers. She developed and leads the End-of-Life Nursing Education Consortium, which has trainers in 99 countries and all 50 states. She will be able to offer the Covid advisory panel guidance on how to improve palliative care and make it more widely available.
8. Experts in school nursing
School nurses are among the public health nurses who are most vital to controlling Covid, including through work in infection control and vaccine rollout. Many now work long hours contact tracing for the families at their schools, and there are plans for some to play a key role in Covid testing. Basically, they have taken on the work of the public health department, but without adequate staffing or support. Nursing takes time, resources, education, expertise and perseverance. Nurses who can bring the school nurse perspective to the advisory panel include:
Cathy Riccio, RN, MSN, MS, who had so many enthusiastic letters of recommendation submitted on her behalf. She is a school nurse with a degree in Environment Science who guided principals, teachers and staff in Newburyport, MA, on how to re-open schools safely—from health procedures and building operations to the emotional health of students, parents and faculty. She designed professional development materials in language simple enough for everyone to understand. She does contact tracing, delivers food, and acts as an air quality expert and guidance counselor. So far there has been no traceable spread of Covid within the schools she oversees.
Robin Cogan, RN, MEd, is a New York school nurse and frequent media contributor. She is a strong advocate for school children and will be able to give practical, realistic advice on how the nation’s schools can administer testing and roll out vaccines.
9. Experts in vaccine hesitancy, public education and health literacy
A large part of nursing care is aimed at developing strategies to educate patients about the disease process and paths to wellness. Because nurses are widely considered to be trustworthy, members of the public might be more likely to listen to health advice from them. And some nurses have focused on working to persuade reluctant members of the public to follow public health guidance.
Eileen Fry-Bowers, RN, PhD, MSN excels in health literacy and addressing vaccine hesitancy (countering anti-vaccination disinformation).
Blima Marcus, RN, PhD, is a nurse practitioner and assistant adjunct professor at Hunter College. She is also an excellent advocate and educator on vaccine hesitancy, especially in the Orthodox Jewish community.
10. Expert in pain management
Pain management is critical for Covid patients. Nearly every ICU patient on a ventilator is on a fentanyl (opioid) IV because being that sick and coping with all those tubes and procedures is painful. After patients recover, many continue to have pain because of the myriad long-term problems Covid causes.
Sheria G. Robinson-Lane RN, PhD, Assistant Professor, University of Michigan, focuses on pain management, especially in older people—who are hardest hit by Covid and can guide the way forward.
11. Expert in the ethical issues of how to allocate the nation’s health care resources
The panel would benefit from a nursing perspective in considering how limited resources are allocated, including how to balance support for public health measures and clinical care. In particular, as my own recent work providing ICU care to Covid patients has underlined, the current system is struggling to provide effective care with available resources. Vast sums are devoted to ICU care, but there are still insufficient ICU nurses and equipment to provide effective care to all Covid patients. For example, the survival rates for patients once they go on a ventilator is very low, unless they go on ECMO machines, in which case the survival rate is quite high. But we don’t have many ECMO machines. Should the Defense Production Act be invoked to make more? Would we save more lives if we re-directed some efforts to preventive public health work, such as educating society about protective measures and quarantine practice, contact tracing, coordinating vaccination and promising potential therapies, such as vitamin D supplementation? Nurses think about the lived experience of patients and help them plan how to cope with their new realities.
Connie Ulrich, RN, PhD, Professor of Bioethics, University of Pennsylvania, provided testimony to the Presidential Bioethics Commission on the importance of ethics education for nursing and how ethics education influences the moral action of nurses with their patients.
12. After the Inauguration—please consider current government employees
Rear Admiral Aisha K. Mix, RN, DNP, MPH is the Chief Nursing Officer of the US Public Health Service. There is no one more fitting to be on the panel than she is.
Cori Bush, from Missouri’s 1st Congressional District was just elected.
Final Note – Please consider using the Defense Production Act to protect health workers and the public
Nurses and other health workers cannot get enough N95s to work safely. In addition, if every member of the public had an N95, we could better prevent community transmission. An N95 protects the wearer, not just those around them. At my last hospital, I wore one N95 for 8 weeks straight. Other nurses have cared for patients with only a surgical mask—offering themselves up to the disease. Nobody should be sacrificed to Covid. If we invoked the Defense Production Act to fully address these shortages, we could better protect health workers and the community, and get the virus under control. On the other hand, I urge you not to encourage the manufacture of masks with valves. They only protect the wearer and we have to count on each other to protect us. Any mask mandate should make it clear that valve masks do not meet the requirements.
Thank you for considering our recommendations for how the Biden-Harris coronavirus advisory panel can better address the needs of the US healthcare system and the residents of our country. Please let me know if I can assist you in any way.
Sandy Summers, RN, MSN, MPH Founder and Executive Director The Truth About Nursing Co-author: Saving Lives: Why the Media’s Portrayal of Nursing Puts Us All at Risk 203 Churchwardens Rd. Baltimore, Maryland 21212-2937 USA phone 1-410-323-1100cell 1-443-253-3738 email@example.com www.truthaboutnursing.org
The Truth About Nursing is an international 501(c)(3) non-profit organization working to challenge stereotypes. We show that nurses are autonomous, college-educated science professionals who save and improve lives. Each year, the undervaluation and underfunding of nursing leads to millions of needless deaths across the globe. Better understanding of the profession will allow nurses to save all the lives they are capable of saving.
Lorraine Starsky writes in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette about three “extraordinary” Pittsburgh women who happened to be nurses. Each woman had provided services beyond the boundaries of the nursing role.
In this International Year of the Nurse and Midwife, Lorraine Starsky tells the story of three women who were trailblazers
LORRAINE STARSKY OCT 25, 2020 9:00 AM
In May 2019, long before COVID-19 became a worldwide pandemic, the World Health Assembly designated 2020 as the International Year of the Nurse and the Midwife.
The designation was, in part, to pay tribute to Florence Nightingale. Considered the founder of modern nursing, Nightingale was born on May 12, 1820, making 2020 the 200th year anniversary of her birth.
Nurses and midwives have had a long, rich history of safeguarding the health of people. Primarily they work without recognition and pass into history with their names unknown and their stories untold. In honor of the International Year of the Nurse and the Midwife, here are the remarkable stories of one midwife and two nurses who worked in the Pittsburgh area.
Hannah Sandusky was born in 1827 to a Jewish family in Kovno, Lithuania. With no doctor in the village, Hannah was taught important skills by accompanying her midwife mother as she assisted with local births. She married Louis Sandusky, a window glazer, who came to Pittsburgh in 1860. Hannah and their son joined him 1861. She began working as a midwife, as well as providing care to the many impoverished residents of the Hill District — newly arriving Eastern European immigrants and Blacks from the South.
Her reputation drew the attention of a local doctor who called on her intermittently to assist him with difficult deliveries. He was very impressed by her skill and in appreciation for her help, he sent Sandusky and her son, who had an eye problem, to Germany to see an eye specialist. During the time that her son received treatment for his eye, Hannah attended a recognized school of midwifery.
With her son’s eye treatments completed and her midwifery education finished, Hannah returned to Pittsburgh with formal certification as a midwife, making her one of only a few women in the U.S. with that credential. She delivered 3,571 registered births, but there were, no doubt, many more births that went undocumented. Her passion for providing care did not always carry over to paperwork and The Birth Registration Act didn’t go into effect until 1870. Regardless of the exact number of deliveries; it is an impressive feat since she accomplished this while she raised her seven children.
Sandusky was very kind-hearted and was known for providing her services for free. In situations where a family was facing hardship, she also gave food, baby clothes, and blankets after a birth. She was affectionately known as Bubbe (Yiddish for grandmother) Hannah throughout the Hill District. She was 82 when she delivered her last baby and died at age 86 on November 15, 1913.
Her legacy lives on through the Bubbe Hannah Fund at The Midwife Center for Birth and Women’s Health at 2831 Penn Ave. Donations to the fund underwrite services for individuals experiencing barriers to quality health care. The Midwife Center overcame attempts to drive it out of existence, flourished with grassroots support, and expanded to become the nation’s largest free-standing birth center operated by midwives.
An exquisite, art quilt portrait of Bubbe Hannah hangs on the waiting room wall sweetly looking on the families awaiting the midwives’ services.
Like midwife Hannah Sandusky, public health nurse Anna Heldman spent the bulk of her nursing career in the Hill District.
Anna Barbara Heldman was born in Castle Shannon on January 15, 1873. Early on, she felt the call of nursing and found work as a practical nurse at Allegheny Hospital in 1893 despite the fact that she had no training or experience. When South Side Hospital established a Hospital Training School for Nurses, Heldman enrolled and was given a year’s worth of credit for her two years of practical nursing at Allegheny Hospital.
She was among the first graduating class of the South Side Hospital Training School for Nurses, receiving her diploma on April 8, 1897. About a year later, she volunteered to serve as a nurse in the Medical Department of the United States Army during the Spanish-American War. She served in Florida, Georgia, and Cuba. When she returned from her tour of duty, she worked briefly as a private duty nurse.
Heldman didn’t find private duty nursing challenging. In 1902 she learned about a new type of nursing referred to as community visiting nursing, the genesis of public health nursing. She was hired at the Columbian School and Settlement in the Hill District modeled after the Hull House in Chicago.
It evolved into the Irene Kaufmann Settlement. At this time Pittsburgh had very high rates of tuberculosis and typhoid, with the Hill District being a hot spot since it was crowded with the poorest of the poor — Blacks escaping the South and new immigrants.
Initially Heldman was discouraged, but she persisted. She already was fluent in German and that helped her master Yiddish, which was useful for nursing Jewish immigrants. She also learned Syrian, Lithuanian, Polish, and Italian, which gained her the trust and affection of the community. She became a recurring sight in the Hill District’s streets and alleys carrying her black nurse’s satchel. Soon people began referring to Anna as “Heldi.”
Her commitment included fighting for better housing conditions, stricter labor laws in the Hill’s cigar factories, better schools, workers’ compensation and the first legal aid service. She and her staff nursed well over 1,000 flu and pneumonia victims during the 1918 flu epidemic.
In addition, she initiated numerous public health programs that ultimately became city services, including a visiting nurses service, a prenatal nursing service, baby clinics and regular medical inspection of students in Pittsburgh’s schools.
The Hill District became Heldman’s family as she never married or had children. Because her dedication touched the lives of so many men, women and children in her 38 years of service as a public health nurse, she became known as the “Angel of the Hill District.”
As an expression of gratitude for her devotion to the Hill District, the city in 1939 renamed Overhill Street, Heldman Street, which still exists. When she died in March 1940 at 67, her body was brought to the Irene Kaufmann Settlement House. Thousands filed past her coffin to pay their respects to the indomitable woman they called the “Angel of the Hill District.”
Evelyn Paige Parke
Evelyn Page Parker was born January 8, 1921 in Pittsburgh. While she was a student at Westinghouse High School, she knew she wanted to become a nurse. However, in 1940 no schools of nursing in Pittsburgh would admit Black students to become Registered Nurses, so she left for Philadelphia. She enrolled at Mercy Douglass Hospital School for Nurses, which was the first nursing school in Philadelphia for Blacks.
While at Mercy Douglass she took a course at Philadelphia General Hospital, where she learned that Blacks were not permitted to eat in their cafeteria. She was not deterred and continued to go to the cafeteria. Eventually the cafeteria cooks let her eat.
Later in life she related the story, “Everyone started looking at me, thinking ‘What’s she doing here?’ But then, they started letting African American students eat there.”
Parker graduated in 1943 from Mercy-Douglas. She persisted in her efforts to promote equality for Blacks. Philadelphia General Hospital finally opened its nursing school and internship programs to Black students in 1945.
In the meantime, she pursued her nursing career in Philadelphia. She focused on public health nursing and was instrumental in helping to found the Community Nursing Services of Philadelphia in 1959. During this time, she married, had a son, and worked on her bachelors in Nursing from the University of Pennsylvania, which was awarded in 1961.
In the late 60s Parker returned to Pittsburgh and enrolled at the Graduate School of Public Health at Pitt. She finished her Master’s degree in Public Health in 1969 and became a faculty member at the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Nursing until 1981.
She then taught at Duquesne University’s School of Nursing until 1984 when she retired. She mentored students at both universities throughout her career. Even in retirement, her passion for nursing and social justice burned bright as she continued to help young Blacks pursue their dreams of a career in nursing.
Parker volunteered for many causes, from the local NAACP chapter, the AARP health committee, American Heart Association’s Sister to Sister Program and many cancer survivors’ groups. Probably closest to her heart was the Pittsburgh chapter of the National Black Nurses Association, which is called Pittsburgh Black Nurses in Action.
Evelyn remained a devoted member until her death in 2008. In her obituary, her son Tom Parker said “I think the challenges she faced just motivated her more.”
Today the Pittsburgh Black Nurses in Action carries on her legacy by offering support to prospective Black nursing students and addressing health disparities in the community. The Evelyn Paige Parker Scholarship is awarded annually.
Lorraine Starsky BSN, RN, retired in 2019 as a Public Health Nurse with the Allegheny County Health Department. She is working part time currently as a community health nurse consultant for Project Destiny. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
The World Health Organization designation of 2020 Year of the Nurse and Nurse Midwife has taken a back seat to the sensational political news alerts that fill our lives as if nothing else is important. This post is just a reminder that nurses still are on the front lines of COVID-19 and make a difference in our lives every day.