They know what they’re in for – the physical challenges, emotional roller coasters, personal sacrifices and the demands to keep up with constantly changing procedures, therapies and technology – and they’re more than just glad to do it. Most nurses actually dreamed of it as children and, even after years in the field, couldn’t imagine doing anything else.

Nurses perform selflessly every day. It’s part of the job description: Give up nights, weekends and holidays; put your own health on the line; work under intense pressure where the wrong decision could cost a person’s life; and do it with a good attitude and a servant’s heart. More than a paycheck, nursing is a vocation, a calling, said 17-year veteran Brandi Worthy, nurse coordinator of the surgery clinic at Russell Medical.

“I absolutely do think it is a calling,” Worthy said. “We just want to take care of people.”

In Tallapoosa County, the number of nurses on active duty tops more than 500 and includes nurses on hospital floors, in nursing homes, doctors’ offices, clinics, treatment centers, home healthcare and schools.

“We couldn’t function without the nurses,” said Russell Medical’s Vice President of Clinical Services Sarah Beth Gettys. “They’re in every department, and they do so many different kinds of service.”

Each department makes its own special demands on a nurse’s education, qualifications and abilities. The nursing skills and knowledge required change from department to department, be it medical and surgical, recovery, obstetrics, newborn nursery, rehab care, the emergency room, ICU or psychiatrics. Each area has something specific to it that requires additional training.

“Most nurses gravitate to a particular area, but they still have to be so flexible,” Gettys said. “A medical/surgical nurse has to be able to go from a surgery patient to someone having a stroke; and then, she’s a nurse to the family members of the person who had the stroke. Nurses really do so much.”

Within each department, nurses also fill administrative positions that include coding, record keeping, data reporting and documentation of quality standards. Many of these roles are new to the nursing profession, Gettys said.

“The Lord hasn’t changed the human body, but the detail that we have now – the specialty medications and the intricacies of the equipment – is unreal. With so much more detail, nurses need to be able to relate that back to treating the patient,” she explained. “You can’t stop learning in this vocation. You have to be a lifelong learner because you learn something new every day.”

One of the biggest changes to rock the nurses’ world in recent years is the electronic health record, noted Medical/Surgical Nurse Manager Nancy Ammons, a registered nurse who came to Alexander City’s Russell Medical to fulfill a passion for rural healthcare.

“The safety checks it provides are great. You can scan the medicines and verify the patient is getting the right medication. It tells us right there in front of us about the medication, so a nurse can educate the patient on the drug. When I first started out, we put pills in a cup and checked a patient’s wristband. The safety checks we have now are wonderful,” she said.

Still, these and other technological advances have created some distancing from patients, she added.

“To do all that documentation in a computer takes you away from the patient. There’s more criteria to meet, and sometimes, that takes a long time. You don’t have as much interaction with patients,” she said.

It adds stress to an already stressful job. 

“People don’t realize the amount of stress that nurses deal with. It takes a toll on you,” Ammons said.

“The biggest challenge is when you’ve done everything you can, and there’s nothing you else you can do,” Worthy said. “You’re physically, emotionally and mentally exhausted. You have to be able to leave your work at work, but there are still those patients you never stop thinking about. You wake up at night and hope you did the right thing.”

Dr. Jennifer Steele, Director of Nursing Education at Central Alabama Community College, said the growing demand for nurses has lead CACC to double its class size over the past two years.

“We used to only admit students in the fall and then only admitting 48 students, but in January, we began offering admission in the spring as well. Now, instead of admitting 48 students once a year, we’re admitting 36 to 42 students twice a year,” Steele explained.

The number of male nurses is growing as well. No longer a traditionally female position, nursing appeals to more men because of the technological advances, breakdowns in society’s gender rules and the physical demands of the job. 

The academics of nursing school are challenging at different levels as well, Steele said. Students – whether male or female – need a variety of gifts.

“Some do very well academically but may struggle with the nurse-to-patient communication. Others do very well relationally but struggle academically. The exams simulate what life will be like on the floor. Yes, you have to pass the class, but the measurement that matters most is how are you doing at the bedside? I want a nurse that can put their hand on me, and I have confidence in their ability to care for me based on that interaction,” she said.

That’s never been more important than now, as nurses are the frontline heroes in combatting the coronavirus pandemic that has swept through the nation.

“We have been prepping for all of this,” Gettys said. “We knew what was coming. Nurses are built to run to the fire. A nurse is going to be the one who runs to help.” 

The reward for doing so, in addition to a good living wage, is the satisfaction of fulfilling the call to help. 

“That’s the job,” Worthy said. “That’s what we want to do.”

“A simple ‘thank you’ is the best way to show appreciation,” Ammons said. “It means so much when someone says ‘thank you’ because what we do is hard. It’s day after day after day after day working with people who are really sick. They are scared, and it takes so much from a nurse – mentally, physically and emotionally. Your heart is in it, and hearing ‘I appreciate you,’ ‘you’ve gotten me through this;’ a ‘thank you’ goes a long way.”