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Portraits of Compassion: Photographer Shows Voice, Fortitude of American Nurses

August 5, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Photographer Carolyn Jones spent two years profiling changes in the health care system. Her new book, "The American Nurse," highlights how the profession of nursing is evolving. Jones and Rhonda Collins of Fresenius Kabi USA join Hari Sreenivasan for a closer look at nurses' roles on the front lines of American medicine.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight: the stories of those at the forefront of health care, the nurses who serve as healers in communities from coast to coast.

We turn again to Hari, who recorded this conversation recently.

HARI SREENIVASAN: There are more than three million registered nurses in the U.S., and that will not be nearly enough in the coming years, as baby boomers begin to need more assistance and the Affordable Care Act kicks in.

A new book called “The American Nurse” looks behind the numbers in a very personal way, through portraits and essays of more than 75 men and women in several different caregiving capacities.

Photographer and documentarian Carolyn Jones spent the last two years chronicling the changes in the health care system and the compassion of those on the front lines. She interviews nurses who care for prisoners at Angola prison in Louisiana, the coal miners in Kentucky, to wounded soldiers in California, and hospice patients in Florida, among many others.

Carolyn Jones joins me now, along with Rhonda Collins, who is a registered nurse and vice president of Fresenius Kabi USA, the health care company that funded the project.

Thanks for being with us.

CAROLYN JONES, author, “The American Nurse”: Thank you.

HARI SREENIVASAN: OK. So most of us are born with a nurse nearby and many of us may have a nurse near us at the end. Why this project?

CAROLYN JONES: Rhonda really wanted to celebrate nurses and to shine a light on a portion of the population that we really don’t know very much about. So we will all need a nurse eventually in our lives and we need more of them, so we wanted to give them a voice.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, you were a breast cancer survivor. You had a very long relationship with a nurse through a very painful portion of your life. What didn’t you understand about nursing when you took on this project?

CAROLYN JONES: Well, I have to say, even though I went through breast cancer experience, I really thought a nurse was a nurse was a nurse. You know, I mean, they take your blood pressure and your temperature.

And, in my case, I had an extraordinary relationship with a woman who gave me chemotherapy. But I didn’t know about all different kinds of nurses and everything that they do and how many different ways they touch our lives. I mean, they look at us really holistically.

So my experience with the chemotherapy nurse was a really personal and emotional one. She got me through because of how she made me feel during that time.

RAY SUAREZ: Did your perceptions change when you finished this book?

CAROLYN JONES: Well, yes. I saw nurses doing things I had no idea they did.

I mean, first of all, I saw nurses go into places — in Kentucky, for example, we went to visit a gentleman named Sidney who was living in a trailer at the end of a long road. And we got to his door, and I think that the nurse that was coming to visit him had, he hadn’t seen anyone for weeks, and his home hadn’t been cleaned in weeks and neither had he.

I stopped at that door just thinking, oh, my gosh, I don’t even think I can walk in there. And the nurse, Robin McPeek, blew by me, walked in, found a little area, moved some stuff away, put down a sterile area, and took his blood pressure and his — took his temperature and gave him kind of the warmest hello that I had ever seen.

And I thought, you know, that’s a quality I would like to get. So, I think nurses spend an enormous amount of time doing things that are outside of the box of what we think normal nursing is.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, give me an example of care that a nurse might be providing that you might not know is coming from a nurse?

RHONDA COLLINS, vice president, Fresenius Kabi USA: You look in ICUs or trauma patients who come in, they’re comatose.

Really, nursing then is caring for the family. And it’s caring for those around them to help them cope with what you know is a life-changing event. Whether it’s a spinal injury or neurological injury, something like that, you know that this child or this loved one will never be the same.

And, as nurses, we work very hard to educate the family, to prepare them for the future, to give them all the tools and resources that they need to take that loved one home and have a quality of life.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So let’s talk a little bit about the health care system now. How is the role of nursing changing?

RHONDA COLLINS: I think that nurses are taking a more prominent role as we look at how to care for our communities and provide primary care.

There’s approximately 210,000 primary care physicians in the U.S. There’s over three million registered nurses. We believe that nurses should practice to the full extent of their education and their experience, and advance nurse practitioners can provide some of the primary care.

We do have a role in this changing landscape of moving us from a sick model of health and just treating the illness to focusing on growing healthy communities through education and access. That’s been one of the issues that we have had in this country is just the access to care.

You get into rural areas where primary care providers are very lean and sparse, folks don’t have anywhere to go. Nurses can be that gap. And we work together as a team with physicians and provide that care.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And did you see any themes emerging as you crisscrossed the country and talked to all these different types of nurses? What is it that makes someone want to do this? Is there a common thread?

CAROLYN JONES: I was looking for that.

I was looking for whatever that secret mix of ingredients is that would kind of lead someone to this profession. I want some of that. I want to know what those qualities are. So sometimes it was that they were the eldest of six kids and they took care of their younger brothers and sisters and they knew they had a capacity to care. Or maybe there was a grandparent that was in the home that they cared for at the end of life. That was a really big influence on people, I found.

But, in each instance, I think that there’s this kind of personal well that they’re just able to draw upon that the rest of us don’t necessarily have. I told Rhonda in the beginning I was always looking for wings on the back of these — the people that I was meeting, because I was expecting them to kind of sprout wings at some point along the way, because I thought they were saints.

But they’re not. They’re people just like us. But they are driven to care for other people.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, the book is called “American Nurse.”

Carolyn Jones, Rhonda Collins, thanks so much for your time.

RHONDA COLLINS: Thank you.

CAROLYN JONES: Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We have assembled a list of eight types of nurses you have probably never heard of, a roller derby nurse, for example. Find that online.