The Frontline Nurses team is composed of diverse individuals, each of whom brought their own interests and histories to bear on the work. In the reflections below, we share with you our motivations for undertaking this project, and how it has changed us.
Jennifer Dohrn, DNP, CNM, FAAN
When I learned about the growing outbreaks of Ebola in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea in 2014-2016, I immediately wanted to know about the nurses and midwives. Were they safe? Did they have personal protective equipment? How could I help? Having traveled this journey with nurses and midwives in South Africa in the early 2000s as they rallied and immersed themselves in caring for their communities ravaged by HIV, I wanted to connect and be with them in solidarity. I organized my teaching with a timeline of what was happening week by week on the frontlines to keep students engaged and learn about pandemic response. Five years later I traveled to Sierra Leone and Liberia so that I could hear their stories, look nurses and midwives in their eyes and say, ‘You and your work mattered!’ I listened as they told me about their heartbreaks and victories, and their relentless determination to keep caring for their colleagues and their communities. We cried together and acknowledged each other. Now their stories will be heard around the world, and their wisdom and leadership are guiding us on how we respond to this COVID-19 pandemic. I say their names and carry them in my heart as I fight for a just and equitable world.
Victoria Rosner, PhD
When this project was in development, I wondered whether I could usefully contribute to it. I was awed by the skill and commitment of nurses in pandemics, but their work seemed so remote from mine as an English professor in New York. Still, I was so moved by their bravery and acumen and by what I took to be the evident role of sexism in denying nurses recognition that I was determined to try and help.
What I discovered was that story-telling and life-writing could be valuable tools in bringing the contributions of frontline nurses to a wider audience. Frontline nurses had never had the chance to tell their stories to the world, and they wanted the chance to do so. Even before the COVID-19 outbreak, I had decided to dedicate my efforts to designing and building this website, to capturing nurses’ stories and preserving them for the public and for the historical record.
When COVID-19 hit midway through this project, as a New Yorker, I was now on the frontlines of the outbreak myself, with a field hospital across the street from my home. It became clearer than ever how much the stories of frontline nurses needed to be told and the cost in resources and lives of continuing to ignore their personal and clinical experiences.
From the very first I felt very lucky to be able to contribute to this effort, and over time I have come to understand that those of us with training in the humanities can determine whose stories get told, and when, and how. It’s been an extraordinary privilege for me to be part of this work.
Annette Mwansa Nkowane, RN, RM, BSc, MA
Giving back to my profession is what compelled me to participate in the work “on the frontline”. It is really an honor to be part of this valuable work. Every effort towards making the voices of nurses count is important as they are in the majority providing close to client services. Travelling to Liberia and Sierra Leone to record oral histories was an opportunity for me to get first-hand accounts of nurses’ experiences during the Ebola outbreak. When I listened to their experiences, I got a deeper understanding of what it means to be at the frontline, which is a rare opportunity. It was my desire to help make the silent voices be heard with the hope of galvanizing support for them and other nurses working in similar contexts. I believe that all our efforts helped to bring about healing of hidden emotional scars which resulted from their experiences and opens a way for constructive actions on improving the conditions of nurses on the frontlines.
In 2013, I was in Liberia working with the nursing and midwifery professions to strengthen their regulatory systems. From 2015 – 2017, I was working in Sierra Leone as an Advisor for the World Health Organization’s Maternal Newborn Health program to support the recovery process from the toll the Ebola epidemic took on the country, its people and the health care system. Returning to Liberia and Sierra Leone in 2019 to participate in gathering oral histories of the nurses and midwives who provided care under such challenging times was for me many things. It was indeed a lifetime opportunity to document their shared lived experiences which will be part of their history and contribute to their national and global recognition. It gave me an opportunity to reflect together with colleagues whom we shared a painful past and rejoice together the unforgettable contributions they made towards the survival of the people in their countries. And hearing from them how much my modest contributions did in fact help in their professional growth and development was very moving for me. My two year experience in Sierra Leone was special. I was there at a time when nursing professional colleagues didn’t know what to do better for their lives and those of their families. When I returned in 2019, it was a situation of hope and determination. My colleagues from both Sierra Leone and Liberia taught me a lesson of never to give up because what you know best is saving mankind.
Susan Michaels-Strasser, PhD, MPH
Being a part of the oral history project and having the time and space to speak with nurses on the frontlines of the West African Ebola outbreak has been immensely rewarding and deeply personal. Their reflections humbled me while also leaving me with an immense sense of pride in our nursing profession. As a public health professional their witness to the 21014-2016 Ebola epidemic reinforced the need to passionately pursue the development of stronger, more resilient health systems. We must continue to fight for basic access to essential health services and stronger health systems- systems that are rooted in and seen as an integral part of the community. Nurses shared eloquently and passionately about why they stayed at the bedside despite the lack of protective equipment, stigmatization and inadequate training. Despite it all they persevered and stopped the epidemic. They sacrificed immensely to protect their community and many nurses lost their lives in the process. The trauma they carry is very real- and we must continue to be resolute in our demand to protect our frontline health workers. Nurses will remain and do what needs to be done to break the chain of infection and care for the ill. We must continue to build systems which protect them, support them and enable them to continue caring for the ill safely and effectively.