Nurses Must Stand Together Against COVID-19 and Unjust Demands

Nurse X quit her job as a nurse in an ER. She was wearing a N95 mask in the ER lobby. A supervisor said she didn’t need it and asked her to take it off…He told her to quit. She did. Her child needs a mother. It’s only a matter of time before you see more healthcare workers making this choice if they don’t have proper PPE.

I am hearing disturbing stories of supervisors forcing nurses to remove their masks. Nurses have always been advocates for our patients. I don’t know a single nurse that is not willing to go toe to toe with a physician, administrator, or even a family member in advocating for their patients. Yet when nurses need to advocate for themselves they would rather quit than take a stand. The fear of retaliation is stronger than the fear of being unemployed. The dirty little secret of nursing is that we have a reputation for eating our young and not standing together when a colleague is targeted by a supervisor or peer.

The Largest and Least Heard Healthcare Profession

Nursing has 3.8 million women and men many of whom now fear for their lives just by going to work. While I see physicians on the news virtually every hour of the day I have rarely seen people discussing what is happening with nurses or having nurses as guest experts. People continually vote nurses the most trusted profession, but apparently, we are not respected for our expertise. The consequence is when nurses are being forced to take off their PPE (mask) by their supervisors or be fired or threatened with being reported the general public is not hearing our stories.

Many nurses feel they cannot quit their jobs so they remove the mask knowing the risk while others quit their jobs and walk away from the work they love. I have yet to hear of one nurse that refused to take off the PPE and instead told the supervisor to fire them if that is what they must do, but they will not practice in an unsafe manner.

What many people do not realize is that many hospitals have social media policies that prohibit nurses from publicly saying anything against their employer. If the nurse does not remain anonymous they can be fired. Essentially, to be a nurse one must give up their freedom of speech. They must give up the right to safety. They must be willing to risk their lives to stay employed while apparently, the employer has no obligation to provide a safe working environment.

If we have plenty of PPE as the President says almost daily, where is it. Why are nurses and physicians being forced to wear the same N95 mask for days? Is there anyone or even a single expert or one bit of evidence that says that it is safe to wear the same mask for days? We all know the answer is no there is not.

Do Not Quit

I firmly believe that nurses should not walk away from their patients and their jobs. I also believe nurses must learn how to say NO. No, I will not take off the mask I bought because you can’t seem to find them. No, I will not move to a unit when I have health and family obligations that I made known when I was hired. No, I will not wear the same mask for days because we all know that it is not safe. No, I will not be silent if my employer will not keep me safe.

What I will do is file an OSHA complaint, write my Representative, and talk to the press. I will contact a union and ask them to help us organize. I will continue to buy my own PPE and refuse to remove it. I will speak out. I will cancel my memberships to my professional organizations if they don’t start advocating for us in a way that is visible to the country.

Nurses Must Stand Together

I  suggest that we take this opportunity to come together as one strong profession and take our place as the largest healthcare profession in the county. It is time to make our voice heard and to let the country and the healthcare system know what we expect and we expect to be safe at work. It is also a good time to change our culture and trust our colleagues as much as the public trusts us. This is not a time we can afford for nurses to quit. If a nurse is told to take off PPE then absolutely ever nurse in the facility should stand together and say either that nurse is allowed to wear the PPE or we will all quit. If we speak with one strong voice the hospitals and healthcare systems will have no choice, but to step up and keep our colleagues safe.

PPE Shortage

I keep hearing that we have a shortage of PPE. We apparently had enough medical supplies including gowns and mask to send 17.8 tons to China last month to help them, but we don’t have any to keep nurses and physicians safe. We have yet to use the Defense Appropriations Act to force companies to make more PPE. And, we have safety standards that seem to be weakened by the day. We have policies that prevent many companies from selling medical supplies to the U.S. Most significantly, we have a government that is not doing enough to address the problem.

Stand up, speak out, and be heard. Caring for patients requires healthy nurses and physicians.

Three Deaths in Three Weeks

Three weeks ago I had work-related travel to New Mexico. The timing was horrible. COVID-19 was starting to explode, but my career, at least in my mind, was tied to this trip. While many people were starting to cancel trips I planned to travel. There were no cases in my state and none in the state to which I was traveling. A few days before my trip things started to change.

Three weeks ago and a few days before my flight I received a text message that Bill Stokes had died. Bill was in his late 70s and had Parkinson’s. He had a profound influence on my young life. When I was a teenager he was the voice of reason. I can’t say how many evenings he stayed up past midnight talking to me and encouraging me to study, pray, work hard, and examine my conscience. He was my model of what a man should be and what a deacon of the church should be. His children remain my brothers and sisters and his wife will always be a second mother to me.  Throughout my life when I had a moral dilemma or needed advice or wanted to celebrate a success he was the person to whom I turned. My heart broke when his daughter called. I have never been good at expressing my emotions and was not able to tell them how much he meant to my young life, my young adulthood, and my faith.

Last week Jim O’Connor died after a long battle with cancer. Jimbo was a lawyer by education and a pianist by passion. He was known around Knoxville for playing at Club LaConte. He was the father of my niece and my twin brother’s best friend. When my brother was shot and killed my niece was the only person who seemed able to express her grief. While she was my brother’s stepdaughter she is the child I never had. She and Jimbo have been in my life since I was a teenager, but it wasn’t until my brother’s death that we truly connected. Jimbo played at my brother’s funeral and it was as if angels were singing. I could hear and feel his love through music. When I returned to Knoxville a couple of years ago I went to a faculty pub and the pianist was Jimbo. I spent the entire evening talking to him, listening, and grateful that fate had brought us together again. It was as if, for a brief moment in time, work didn’t matter. Family was first. I’m sorry I was out of town when he passed and sorry I didn’t have the special gift to offer him that he offered for my brother.

A couple of days ago a student in my Health Policy class at the University of Missouri – St. Louis died. Judy Wilson-Griffin was a shining star in nursing. She was a leader, an educator, and a loved member of the community. She was to lead us into the future. She died too soon from COVID-19.

I can accept that the mentor of my youth died in his 70’s after years battling Parkinson’s disease. I can accept that Jimbo died after fighting cancer for years. He led a life of love that was filled with music and left behind an incredible young woman that teaches English as a second language and has dedicated her life to immigrant children. But damn COIVID-19 for taking someone that should have been leading for years to come. A person who was the next generation of nursing leaders.

I was stoic when my brother died, stoic when my parents died, and remained stoic during the recent deaths. I find it hard to express my grief. Yet I don’t find it hard to express my anger over a wrong. My brother was murdered and I was angry. I’m still angry. Every time I read of a gun-related murder I’m angry all over again. And now I am angry about COVID19 deaths. I know we can’t prevent all gun deaths any more than we can prevent all COVID19 deaths, but we are all culpable because we have been too silent and too stoic. We have a government that has failed us and it has been failing us for a long time. We have counted the failures everything from income disparity to climate change, from ill-advised wars to an epidemic of gun violence, and now we see it in the rich and famous getting tested for COVID19 with minimal or no symptoms and the working class having to beg for testing and being denied. People will die because of the failures, but our Senators made sure to sell their stocks before protecting nurses.

In three weeks I’ve lost a mentor, a friend, and a student. I’m ready to stand up and fight for a better future because what is happening right now isn’t acceptable.


There is No Greater Day to be a Nurse

This morning many of our neighbors woke up without jobs for the first time in their adult lives. They have worked hard to learn a trade, build a business, and build a comfortable life. Due to no fault of their own, they are worried that they will now lose it all. It is new to them because they have always believed in the American dream that through hard work and perseverance they can succeed.

Nurses, physicians, and all those in healthcare that must do their jobs during this crisis do so with dedication and more than a little bravery and self-sacrifice. Sadly, a couple of days ago I saw a post by a nurse practitioner that suggested he should get paid “hazardous duty” pay if others are being paid to work from home. I, of course, replied that he was doing his duty… I’m sure he isn’t the only one that has had a similar thought, but we should work to dispel such ideas.

As nurses, we should be thankful that we are getting paid to do the job we love. At this moment we are asked to do it for our neighbor and our country. When others are worrying about how they will pay their bills, feed their children, and recover when this is over none of us face those concerns.

Once in a lifetime, if we are lucky, we are given the opportunity to serve selflessly. Don’t sully it by making this calling about money.

The American dream will live again in others because you see them through this difficult time and provide them the care they need to recover. There is no greater day to be a nurse.

Nurses Struggle with Duty to Respond

Last night I had a conversation with a friend and former colleague who is concerned about reporting to work. She was told there would be no masks for students and faculty. If that wasn’t enough added stress she also has an elderly parent over 80 years old that lives with her and 3 small children. Her fears are not unfounded and they are the tip of the iceberg.

We have all heard the stories of nurses being told to reuse masks which is a supremely bad idea and risky under the best scenarios and foolish during a pandemic. Too many nurses and physicians in rural hospitals have no N95 masks in the emergency department. Other nurses are making masks out of gowns and we know that there are already many nurses in self-isolation due to work exposure. Fears are well-founded, but we have a duty to report to work.

Duty to Report

Willingness to report to work is largely related to role conflicts: nurse, parent, caregiver for elders, and self-care. Nurses’ willingness to respond has a profound impact on disaster planning, hospital preparedness, patient care, and policy. Chaffee (2009) did an integrative review of the literature on the issue of willingness to respond. As it relates to pandemics she wrote:

Biological outbreaks appear to be a significant barrier to willingness to work. In the Balicer et al study of public health department employees, 53.8% indicated willingness to work in a pandemic influenza outbreak. This is consistent with other reports. Qureshi et alfound 48% of health care workers in New York City indicated they would be willing to work in a severe acute respiratory syndrom outbreak.

In a quick review, I found that between 35% and 65% of nurses say they would not be willing to respond during a pandemic. Many cited fear for children or other family members. Fear under these circumstances is legitimate, but duty should outweigh the fear. I can’t imagine what it must feel like to have small children or frail elders in the home, but I do watch as my 67-year-old husband with asthma and hypertension goes off to the clinic each day. I suppress my desire to ask him to take all the vacation and sick leave he has built up over his workaholic life. I resist because his team and his patients need him. He was surprised as a psychologist that he had a full load of patients today. Rather than his patients canceling it appears that their stress may be increasing visits. Also, when the nurses are busy the other staff (psychologist, social workers, etc.) are helping with the screening of patients at the door to help keep the clinic safer.

I can’t tell you how to examine your conscience and make the decision to report to duty. What I can say is that this time will define how you see yourself for the rest of your life. One day you will look back with pride or regret, but you will look back. Responding to 9/11, anthrax and many other crises profoundly impacted my life. They gave me strength and purpose that I still find hard to explain. As a person of faith, I believe that every nurse is given a gift of healing. Use the gift and bring comfort to the sick, the frightened, and the dying. And know that the nurses and physicians that walk with you through this crisis will be your brothers and sisters for the rest of your life.

Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends. –John 15:13

Let May Registered Nurse Graduates Practice Now

Each May over 100,000 nursing students graduate from programs across the country. Most of those students are now being pulled out of clinical and their classes have moved online. Some are being told their graduation may be delayed. The faculty will make every effort to deliver the content, but it will not be the same as the in-person classes. As anyone who has developed an online class knows it is an extreme amount of work that can’t be done in a few days.

Considering the current 8% nationwide vacancy rate for nurses and that the additional need over the next few months may exceed 100,000 nurses, it would help with the surge needs of hospitals to grant the May graduates their degrees now and waive the NCLEX. I know that some will think this is radical and how will we ensure quality. The truth is most students pass on the first try (88.18%) and if you add a second try (72.85) it is near 100% total pass rate. While students may go back and study more they do no more clinical. Thus the clinical skills they have at graduation are the ones they will have when they enter practice even if they take the exam a second time. If we can get the students out now, it may be a substantial help to hospitals that are likely to become quickly overburdened. Additionally, most of these nurses will be in the age group less impacted by COVID-19.

A second option would be to allow them to graduate now, practice for 6 months as an RN and at the end of that time take the NCLEX. As a faculty member, I prefer option 1 because we know that the longer the student delays the NCLEX the less likely they are to pass on the first attempt. Universities are assessed based on that pass rate and it would be unfair to penalize them, or the students, as the result of a national emergency.

I can hear the uproar now from people saying they need to be oriented, we don’t enough people now, and so on. However, much of the orientation could be condensed. Much of HIPAA is waived during a public health emergency so do they really need that training right now? Most have used the electronic medical record in school, so it could be taught very quickly. They are all required to have the necessary vaccines, CPR, and many other items just to enter their clinical practice settings. The truth is there is a lot of redundancy between what a hospital requires for the new employees and what schools require for students in clinical.

It is time for the National Council of State Boards of Nursing and all Boards of Nursing to take bold action. We should think out of the box and while we are at it break it down and throw it in the recycling bin. If we continue to practice as normal and hold tight to our policies we will do more harm than good if the worst-case scenario occurs with COVID-19. It is the time to act and let our May graduates have their degrees right now. If we wait until we are facing the worst-case scenario it will be too late. We must put the patient first.

Let May graduates practice. Let them join the fight against COVID-19.

The Ministry of Nursing in a Time of COVID-19

I woke up this morning and said a prayer for all the nurses and healthcare workers leaving the safety of their homes for hospitals and clinics around the country. Today your practice should be guided by the science and the best available evidence. When you practice know that it is also an art and for the coming months as you pass through this difficult time help to draw a beautiful picture of compassion and love for those in your care.

One of my favorite books is Spirituality in Nursing by O’Brien. It speaks to me as a nurse and my favorite passage reminds me of what it means to care for the sick. I hope you can carry it with you as you care for those with COVID-19.

I had been invited to attend an early morning church service at “Gift of Peace,” a home for persons with terminal illness operated by Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity. On arrival, I settled quitely into a back corner of the small chapel. There were no pews; the sisters sit or kneel on the floor. As I began to observe the saricclad Missionaries of Charity entering the chapel I noticed, with some astonishment, that none were wearing shoes; they were all barefoot. I knew that the sisters wore sandles when they cared for patients but these had apparently been put aside as they came to kneel before their Lord. Not wanting to violate the spiritual élan of the service, I proceeded, as inconspicously as possible, to slip out of my own sandals. Somehow, becoming shoeless in church, a condition I had not experienced before, provided a powerful symbol for me. I felt that I was truly in the presence of God, of the Holy Mystery, before whose overwhelming compassion and care it seemed only right that I should present myself barefoot, in awe and reverence. Near the end of the service, as I went forward and stood before the altar in bare feet to receive the sacrement of the Eucharist, I sensed in the deep recesses of my soul that I was indeed “standing on holy ground.” That memory will, I pray serve as a poignant reminder that whenever I stand before a suffering patient, I am there also, just as surely in the presense of God, and I must take care to remove whatever unnecessary “shoes” I happen to be wearing at the time. I  need to allow the “bare feet” of my spirit to touch the “holy ground” of my caregiving, so that I shall never fail to hear God’s voice in the “burning bush” of a patient’s pain. –Sister Macrina Wiederkehr

Nursing is your ministry. Never doubt that you were called by God to care for the sick and in the coming months, you are going to see more than you imagined. If we don’t flatten the curve you may see more than it is possible to treat. You may not be able to offer a ventilator to every person that needs one. When your heart is breaking and you are exhausted slow down and take off you “shoes” and know that in the “burning bush” that is your patient God has called you to be present at that moment. It is at that moment your art and your ministry are one with your patient. You will not be able to save them all, but they will forever know that you cared.

New York is already reaching out to retired nurses and faculty to help them with surge capacity. I believe it is time for every state to do the same and make sure they have a mechanism to identify nurses that can serve.

Patron Saints of Nurses

  • St. Agatha of Sicily
  • St. Catherine of Siena
  • St. Camillus of Lellis
  • St. Elizabeth of Hungary

Nursing Schools Closing as COVID-19 Spreads

I spent the last ten years of my U.S. Public Health Service career working in public health emergency preparedness. I was fortunate to be able to help plan for some of the issues related to surge capacity for nursing in disasters and public health emergencies. In much of our planning, we made the assumption that we would be able to add nursing faculty and students to the surge efforts. We understood that schools may close but I don’t think we believed that schools and hospitals would exclude students, especially senior students, from assisting during a national crisis.

Nursing Shortage and Disaster Preparedness

Nationwide there is an 8% RN vacancy rate. The rate is even higher in many areas and especially rural and underserved communities. Added to this the average nursing students receives virtually no training in public health emergency preparedness. However, it isn’t just RNs; When we surveyed students and administrators from across the country MD, DO, and MPH students don’t feel confident to respond and the administrators were only slightly better. Screen Shot 2020-03-16 at 1.31.42 PM

(Red = not confident, Yellow = moderately confident, Green = Confident)

Healthcare students expressed dissatisfaction in their curriculum coverage related to disaster and public health emergency preparedness. Our study found similar results to others—a combination of poor curriculum coverage of disaster topics and a lack of confidence in acting on what was learned in their future positions.  This low coverage is concerning due to documented links between disaster training and willingness to respond.

MPH students reported the most coverage and NP students the least.  However, these differences did not correlate with confidence, with NP students expressing the highest confidence in their abilities to utilize their disaster knowledge. It could be because NPs already practicing as RNs.  When we interviewed 13 expert trainers we only had one that said population health was even considered in the training they provided. In short, we don’t do adequate training in school and we don’t do it in the workplace.

Bad Assumptions

Assuming that nursing faculty and students would step up has now been proven to be a bad assumption. Nursing schools across the country are moving classes online and clinical rotations are being canceled. This may cause multiple problems.

First, some states require a certain amount of clinical to be with patients rather than in simulation. Even if the schools could add more simulation they cannot do so if students are not in residence. This will lead to a reduced graduation rate in May 2020 by thousands of nurses when we are in a crisis.

Second, if nursing students are sent home then they will not be present to assist even as a volunteer with the supervision of faculty.

Compare this to England where the National Health Service is considering temporarily registering 18,000 students to provide care on a voluntary basis.

Utilization of Volunteers

Not surprisingly, nurses are the most requested health professional for most types of disasters.  A combination of modeling supported by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality and past experience in deployments led to estimates for the number of nurses required to respond to a disaster ranging from a low of 436 for hurricanes to a high of 507,150 for pandemic influenza (R. Lavin & R. Knouss, personal communication, September 10, 2005).  The federal, state, and local professional responders, such as USPHS officers and DMATs, could easily deploy 436 nurses, but the concern is for how long.  All of the nurses have full-time jobs elsewhere, frequently in direct patient care settings.  However, the total number of federal nurses and DMATs combined do not equal 507,150. therefore it is necessary when considering worst-case scenarios to include citizen volunteers and to enhance the existing ability to effectively and efficiently identify, credential, and utilize those volunteers. 

I’m a little concerned that we did not consider how we would allow students, especially senior students, to assist at least as a CNA during the crisis. Instead, because of the legal concerns most hospitals and schools are choosing not to have students present at all. Not only will this not aid in the response, but it is likely to delay graduations in a time of extreme need. I hope going forward we will revisit this issue and find a way around regulations that restrict licensure during public health emergencies.


Faith Communities and COVID19

I love my faith community, but I think this week they failed the community. It is Sunday and I stayed home. I am not sick, but I did get off a plane at 2:00 AM Saturday morning. I took all reasonable precautions and probably some that were overly cautious, but I would feel horrible if I went into what is a mass gathering and unintentionally put others at risk.

I fail to understand why we canceled university classes and religious leaders are not canceling services. For example, the University of Tennessee closed until April 3, closed the library (I chuckled that they feared a mass gathering), and put all classes online.  Why didn’t the university parish which serves the larger community also cancel services? They are creating a mass gathering. Do people of faith really believe that they are not creating a risk situation by gathering, or do they think God will protect them, or is it that their own self-interest is more important to them than the health of the community?

If I am sitting in a pew there are going to be a minimum of 12 people within 6 feet of me. That means one person that is infected can easily expose 12 more. They may not be coughing or sneezing, but they are touching the pews, singing, and reciting prayers. Even talking distributes droplets. I think we have all had the experience of talking to someone and have spittle land on us. Singing is likely to spread those droplets further than talking in a normal tone. Now add 100 – 500 people in a church, synagog, mosque, or another place of worship and imagine what you are potentially doing.

I am saddened to see our places of faith being less responsible than sports teams. Next time you talk about universities being the places that teach self-interest and are concerned that they don’t put the community first or don’t teach moral values,  you need to take a look at all the churches that chose to hold services knowing the risk and then compare that to all the universities and sports teams that cared enough for the community to act quickly.

We don’t have to be physically together to pray together. While it may help to clean the church, not pass collection baskets, and remove the holy water that is not social distancing. It doesn’t stop droplets and it doesn’t stop the respiratory spread from droplets in the air. People with no symptoms can spread coronavirus without knowing they have it. Be compassionate and know that God doesn’t live only in church. I am grateful to all of those that did cancel services and for all of those that took the time to pray at home. If you didn’t cancel your services you are not helping to flatten the curve.

I know for many their place of faith is a support system and not being able to attend is emotionally difficult. If you are sick or worried during this time I will promise to pray for you daily by name if you post a request and I will ask my friends to do the same. We can be a community and be in community with each other without being physically together.

Joshua 1:9 “Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.”

Rending My Nursing Heart


Even now, says the LORD,
return to me with your whole heart,
with fasting, and weeping, and mourning;
Rend your hearts, not your garments,
and return to the LORD, your God. JL 2: 12-13

Lent begins with a reminder to rend my heart.  As I looked into the courtyard outside my office I thought it is a lot like my heart. The mess of fall leaves has not been cleaned up and with all the rain they are now a mushy mess. Daffodils and the tulip tree are in full bloom heralding the coming spring and the hope of green grass, sunny skies, and warmer weather. Yet it is impossible to enjoy the beauty of spring without cleaning up the mess of fall.

Recently, I have had two college students to contact me. Neither are current students of mine, but both wanted advice. Their requests were simple enough to answer, but in both cases I found myself thinking what they really needed was someone that could be silent and listen. It is easy to listen quietly, but it is much harder to shut down the inner speech while listening that is screaming at me that we must change our culture in nursing education.

I knew both students had the answers and what they wanted was confirmation. Largely, they wanted someone to say it was okay to challenge a faculty member. As I listened it was hard to stay true to my belief that one should always first refer the students back to faculty to work out their issues. It is good practice for professional life. It builds professional negotiation skills and it builds honest working relationships. That is what I did after listening long enough for them to find their courage.

My question to my nursing friends is why does it happen so often? Why do students fear us? We should be the model of kindness and compassion to them, but instead, it sometimes feels more like we are the inquisitors. We blindly and harshly apply rules to students. Rules that can profoundly impact their academic success. Of equal concern is that when we show them such harshness we are modeling the behavior we claim to detest.

We absolutely should challenge students intellectually and ask them to dig deeper into issues. We should ask them to think out of the box and explore options that will require hard work. But we should also make sure they know that it is always safe to challenge us. I worry that the problem is we are not comfortable being challenged. Personally, I would much rather deal with the person that challenges me to my face than the one that walks away without speaking their mind only to then complain to anyone who will listen. I wish teaching inner courage was an expectation in every class.

Maybe my heart feels like a fall mess because I haven’t done enough to change the status quo. I know I want a better environment for the young nurses we are teaching, but I need to dig deep to find what it takes to change the culture that sees conflict as win-lose rather than an opportunity to understand divergent perspectives and grow.

Relational trust is built on movements of the human heart such as empathy, commitment, compassion, patience, and the capacity to forgive… If we embrace diversity, we find ourselves on the doorstep of our next fear: fear of of the conflict that will ensue when divergent truths meet. Because academic culture knows only one form of conflict, the win-lose form called competition, we fear the live encounter as a contest from which one party emerges victorious while the other leaves defeated and ashamed. To evade public engagement over our dangerous differences, we privatize them, only to find them growing larger and more divisive.  — Parker J. Palmer

How many people have I failed to see

I woke up yesterday morning and wanted to paint. Painting is what I do when I need to see the beginning and end. It focuses my mind on the straight lines in my life of which there are far too few. Fresh paint brings a clean look that covers the scratches, dust, and general wear of times when I wasn’t careful enough. It covers errors and at least for a while all is new.

I didn’t make it to the basement to start painting but instead went to Mass where the Priest reminded us that we all have difficult times when things do not go as we planned, but God has a plan and there is a purpose.

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.

–Leonard Cohen (Anthem)

As I sat there too self-absorbed in my own life and difficulties a woman came in near the end of the Mass and sat down directly in front of me. Her body odor was strong and acrid. She wore multiple coats and carried yet another. In her left hand was a plastic bag and over her right should a pink backpack like children carry to school that still had a tag on it. She knelt down on one knee with her right arm draped over the pew in front of her and rested her head on the pew. She looked exhausted. 

As a nurse who started my career in an acute psychiatric admission unit, I’m used to all manner of malodorous smells. They rarely bother me. It is even more unusual when I want to escape a smell. This was one of those smells that invades one’s nostrils and sinuses. As my sense of smell screamed at me to move over I could not bring myself to do so. Clearly, this woman had sought refuge in a place that was warm and safe. It was a morning Mass and like most, there was enough room to be far away from others if that was what she wanted. It is usually what I want. She chose to sit directly in front of me and knelt in a way that she could see my face. It could have been that she was hypervigilant about who was around her, but if that were the case she would probably have chosen another seat.

When Mass ended I left and she stayed. There was a time that I spent a couple of nights a week working with those experiencing homelessness. I never knew why I was so passionate about homelessness, but I’ve always suspected it is my own insecurities and fears. The fear of being alone, or unloved, or without the basic necessities of life. I have no idea where such fears come from as I’ve never experienced any of those things. Like all people, I face difficulties and disappointments, but perspective is important.

A week before Christmas I saw the person in front of me. How many people have I failed to see? It seems many are exhausted, or sad, or frustrated, or angry, or overworked. I wonder how often we walk past each other without seeing. “There is a crack, a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”