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The last word on the daily kindness

MSNBC's Lawrence O'Donnell pays tribute to his nurses

Lawrence O'DonnellJune 23, 2014 -- Tonight MSNBC's The Last Word with Lawrence O'Donnell included a heartfelt tribute to nurses, as part of a substantial segment about the host's own experiences following a serious vehicle accident. O'Donnell focused on the critical roles nurses played in his recovery after hip surgery. The tribute was moving and it certainly conveyed, in a general way, what O'Donnell called the "extraordinary daily kindness and heroism" of nurses caring for vulnerable patients, motivated by "the goodness of their hearts." It must be said that the tribute was fully consistent with the unskilled angel image of nursing. Indeed, O'Donnell noted that he had tried to tip one of his nurses; the nurse politely declined, citing hospital rules and his own ethics. Nothing in the segment suggested that nurses had expertise or knowledge, in contrast to O'Donnell's description of his surgeon as "brilliant." We appreciate that O'Donnell's tribute reflected a sincere effort to honor nurses and that it did suggest something of the emotional strength nursing requires. But it would have been much better to hear a more balanced statement telling viewers that nurses save lives with their university educations and advanced health skills--skills that include careful monitoring, education, and advocacy for patients after surgery.

The goodness of their hearts

In his June 23 segment, O'Donnell describes the April 2014 Virgin Islands accident in which his hip was broken. He thanks those who helped him at the scene, then explains how he was airlifted back to New York, where he ended up at the Hospital for Special Surgery. O'Donnell first thanks his "brilliant surgeon, Dr. David Helfet," but he is more interested in the nurses. Never hospitalized before, O'Donnell had "never seen the extraordinary daily kindness and heroism of nurses up close." He says he was completely dependent on the nurses for weeks, including during an extremely painful night after surgery. Nurse John Frank Ellis "got me through that night. ... I've never been more dependent on anyone in my adulthood and never been more grateful." The next time Ellis was back on duty, O'Donnell handed him a sealed envelope with a lot of cash in it as a thank you. Ellis left and but quickly returned, handing back the money and saying it was "against his personal ethics and against hospital policy to accept gifts like that."

So, you can tip people who clean your room in hotels but you can`t tip nurses, I didn't know that. Great nurses don't do it for the money. Yes, they care about and they rely on their paychecks, but they couldn't do the work they do, the great nurses couldn't do that, they couldn't do it the way they do it, if the motivation didn't come from the goodness of their hearts.

O'Donnell goes on to say that Ellis and the other nurses don't ask to be treated as "heroes," but simply to make a living wage and to help others. O'Donnell notes that the "doctors and nurses" he's met have something most of us do not, the "absolute certainty every time they go to work that they're going to do something important today, something invaluable, for someone else." He goes on to pay tribute to his physical therapists as having "that same quiet kindness, that same dedication." And he urges viewers to remember that whatever the "bad news of the day" in the political world--the show's usual focus--there are also "people working in hospitals doing remarkable things to save lives, every day." O'Donnell closes with a description of the nurse who "spent the most time with" him, Shannon Lawrence. He asks the African-American Lawrence how she got an Irish first name. She tells him that when her father was wounded during World War II and treated at a hospital in England, the only nurse who would care for him was an Irish one named Shannon. O'Donnell: "My nurse Shannon has spent her life sharing the same healing kindness and grace that her father's nurse did. And on my last day in New York -- I told Shannon that if I had another daughter, I would name her Shannon."

This is a moving tribute, and it's important to note what is good about it. O'Donnell conveys with real passion that these nurses have done something valuable for him, getting him through a tough time with strength and kindness. Only two nurses are described specifically, but they are a man and an African-American--lending support for greater diversity in the profession. There is at least a suggestion that nurses might be among the "people working in hospitals doing remarkable things to save lives, every day." And O'Donnell is careful to stress that nurses should not be expected to do their work without a living wage. He is clearly sensitive to that potential interpretation of his remarks, that nurses are noble serfs who don't want or need money.

Unfortunately, all of O'Donnell's direct tributes to nurses are consistent with the angel stereotype, with the focus on "kindness," "goodness," "grace," "dedication," and "hearts." And of course, Ellis's return of the money reflects nurses' well-known "ethics and honesty." There is, however, no reference to nurses' education or advanced technical skills. O'Donnell notes that his time in the hospital was a "revelation," but it's not clear if it was revealed that the nurses actually kept him alive following surgery with their health care expertise. O'Donnell suggests the nurses are "heroic," that Ellis "got me through" that difficult first night, and there is that reference to "people" in hospitals who "save lives." But these elements are far too general to alter the overall impression of nurses as health workers whose main virtues are spiritual and emotional. As O'Donnell himself seems to sense a little in stressing that nurses need to be paid, this common image of the profession really does the modern nurse few favors. In tough economic times, workers whose main attributes are kindness and dedication will have a hard time convincing decision-makers not only that they deserve a good wage, but also that they need significant educational and clinical resources, including staffing. Why would a worker need graduate degrees, clinical residencies, or even a lunch break if the person's main attribute is "goodness"? Indeed, O'Donnell seems to remain puzzled as to why tipping is OK for housekeepers but not for nurses. His surgeon is "brilliant," and we are guessing it did not occur to O'Donnell to tip him. Yet like the surgeon, nurses practice a critical health profession that requires a college science degree. They deserve respect not just for their hearts but also for their brains.

Send Mr. O'Donnell your thoughts via Twitter @Lawrence

And please send us a copy of your Tweet @SandySummers or at

See a transcript of the June 23, 2014 episode of MSNBC's "The Last Word with Lawrence O'Donnell." (or archived in pdf format)





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