Friday, August 01, 2014

When Nurses Receive Their Due

Most nurses will readily admit that they didn't choose nursing because of the astronomically high paychecks. Sure, nursing can be a relatively remunerative career, but there are plenty of other professions that are significantly more financially rewarding (and free of some of the challenges that nurses face on a daily basis). So, what if nurses were paid a whole lot more in exchange for saving ---and otherwise improving---the lives of a grateful public?

Multimillion Dollar Players

We all know that entertainers and athletes make a lot of money, whether it's deserved or not. NFL players sign multimillion dollar contracts in return for throwing and catching a ball (and, admittedly, running a lot), and singers and entertainers rake in millions in exchange for strumming their guitars, singing, dancing, and cavorting on stage and in music videos. Meanwhile, we all know that actors also make multimillions. And let's not forget those lucrative product endorsements.

Don't get me wrong. Sports and the arts contribute greatly to the fabric of societies the world over, and there are many individuals who could honestly say that a song or movie saved their life (whether literally or figuratively, that's up to you to decide). While I'm not a sports fan, many fans would likely share that the joy of watching a very exciting game allows them to forget their troubles for a few hours, transporting them into a blissful realm of communal celebration.

So, if those who entertain us and thrill us earn millions per year, why is it that those who are so-called "angels of mercy" or "lifesavers" frequently struggle to make ends meet, put food on the table, and repay student loans?

How Do We Measure Value?

Granted, we place a very high value on entertainment and sports, and I, like millions of others, flock to the movies, buy DVDs and CDs, download music, and otherwise support the careers of artists, actors, musicians and others whom I admire. While I can't say that David Byrne's music has ever saved my life, his music is indeed a part of my personal soundtrack, and the value of that is difficult to measure.

Now, I've only been hospitalized twice in my life, but the nurses who cared for me on both of those occasions were stellar. When my wife was in the hospital a few years ago, her nursing care was excellent, and when my mom had a massive stroke and was on a vent, it was the nurses who kindly guided me through the torturous decision to unplug the machines and let her go.

Did those nurses deserve to earn more than they were earning? Absolutely. Can our healthcare infrastructure afford to offer multimillion dollar contracts to every nurse? We'd all likely agree that that would cripple the system overnight. Still, do we value certain services and professions enough to make sure that they are compensated appropriately? Probably not.

Cognitive Dissonance

This modest blog post is not written in the spirit of having any answers to the largely rhetorical questions that it raises. But the questions are well worth considering.

Of course, when millions of people buy the new Rolling Stones CD and pay several hundred dollars each to watch Mick Jagger strut his stuff live on stage in some massive arena, it follows that the Stones' individual and collective wealth will be mushrooming as the fans scream for more.

I don't begrudge Mick or his fellow bandmates their wealth, but I also wonder why an ER nurse who plunges her gloved hand into the gaping wound of a patient to stop a life-threatening hemorrhage and save a life doesn't earn more than $40 per hour (and in some cases much less than that). And if that nurse was saving the life of said Mr. Jagger, for instance, does that make her actions more valuable than if she were holding the severed femoral artery of a carpenter, hairdresser, or homeless person?

This is where I experience cognitive dissonance while still having no answer to the question of why that disparity of income truly exists---and what can be done about it, if anything.

I Have No Answers

Truly, I have no answers, but I certainly have many questions.

The communal experience of a Rolling Stones concert (which I've never had the pleasure to attend, mind you) could indeed give a concertgoer such transcendent pleasure that her emotional wounds of the day could very well be assuaged for a brief time as she falls under the magical spell of the music. The reverberations of that experience could also positively impact her well-being for days or weeks to come.

Now, if that same individual was in a car accident and a nurse or paramedic was able to reverse her flatline, bringing her back from the brink of death, is that experience more important or life-changing than the Rolling Stones concert? I would imagine it probably is. Still, the earning potential of that nurse or paramedic would not generally be impacted by having saved that life, while the aforementioned Mick Jagger would settle into his limousine, stopping by the bank to deposit another check for $3 million. (Actually, I'm sure Mick hasn't set foot in a bank for decades.)

Be this as it may, I again have no answers. My heart's deepest desire is that those who save the lives of others be well compensated for the amazing work that they do. Sure, brain surgeons likely make a pretty good living, but the nurses with boots on the ground earn a good deal less, proportionately (even when considering relative years of education, training, etc).

Can this playing field be leveled? I doubt it. Should it? Yes, indeed. But this is actually a societal issue in the largest sense of that notion, and the answers are obviously very elusive, at best.

An Endless Conundrum

Sure, nurses will never earn as much as brain surgeons, and that's okay since brain surgeons undergo a great deal more education and training while also carrying an astronomical liability for the work that they do.

Nurses will also never earn as much as Mick Jagger, and they certainly won't receive the adulation that good old Mick receives, even though they've held those severed arteries and saved lives galore.

This question of relative value and income is one worth considering, and readers' responses are welcome. Again, I have no answers---and only more questions---but conversation about such issues are a valuable exercise in measuring and assessing our individual and collective values.

So, the next time a nurse saves your life or the life of a loved one, consider how much that means to you as compared to, say, watching Mike Jagger strut and crow like a rooster. A front row seat to see the Rolling Stones is exhilarating, but so is the sight of a nurse saving the life of the person you love the most (or compassionately guiding you through releasing a loved one whose life has ended).

The conundrum remains unanswered.......
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