I’ll just say it: Every year should be the Year of the Nurse.

We’ve been more mindful of nurses during the pandemic, and we can experience their influence and expertise almost everywhere – schools, operating rooms, public health clinics, doctors’ offices, hospital bedsides and military bases. I think of nurses in still another way – as patient advocates and researchers.

Florence Nightingale, the founder of modern nursing, originated that advocacy role. She was more than “The Lady With The Lamp” tending to British soldiers day and night during the Crimean War. A social reformer and self-taught hospital sanitation expert, she defines patient advocacy. Modern hospitals’ specialized dietary menus, laundry services, book carts and patient education classrooms trace their origins to Florence, who saw that patients got what they needed.

Many 21st-Century nurses carry Florence’s torch of patient support and intertwine it with research. I recently spoke with one of them, Mildred (Milli) Ortu Kowalski, PhD, RN, NE-BC. I found Milli’s career path to be very interesting – more than 40 years of centering patients in her work, from advocacy to research.

A former hospital supervisor and vice president of nursing, Milli joined Novartis in the late ‘80s. Starting in oncology clinical research, she wrote study protocols and then kept adding responsibilities, including management of 28 clinical trials! Milli took a new role in 2004 as Director, Patient Advocacy Oncology. Her department worked with about 300 national and global patient advocacy groups and helped financially needy patients access Novartis products. And she identified clinical trial opportunities that might interest these organizations and their members.

In April 2013, Milli found her “best of all worlds” position: Nurse Researcher at Morristown Medical Center part of the Atlantic Health System. As part of her role, she launched and manages the Center for Nursing Innovation and Research, where she shares her knowledge of research processes with nurses at all levels. “The center provides nurses and others a chance to share ideas, be creative and innovative and work toward improving patient outcomes,” she says.

Just as research scientists test promising compounds in a laboratory, Morristown staff collaborates with other researchers in evidence-based testing of concepts to improve patients’ experiences and ultimately, their health.

Milli told me about a study that involved a scent many people enjoy, lavender, and the role of aromatherapy in easing anxiety among women having a breast biopsy. As anyone who’s ever had a biopsy knows, the procedure can be anxiety producing. In the Morristown-based study, nurses took patients’ vital signs and conducted a brief anxiety survey before their image-guided breast biopsy. Then, one of three felt patches was attached to their gowns: lavender/sandalwood scented, orange/peppermint scented or an unscented placebo. The nurses took vital signs and repeated the survey after the biopsy. Most of the women were less anxious afterward, but those who received the lavender/sandalwood combo fared best. (You can read more about the study, which was published in Worldviews in Evidence-Based Nursing in 2017.) The findings were put into practice: Today, nurses offer patients the lavender/sandalwood aromatherapy, with its calming benefits, before biopsies.

That’s just one of several studies nurses have led – and are conducting – at Morristown Medical Center. Through research, they’re advocating for patients. Of course, nurses at MMC and throughout the Atlantic Health System support patients in many other ways – even during the pandemic. Patient focus groups and therapy dogs may be sidelined for now, but MMC has ramped up technology, equipping patient rooms with iPads and facilitating Zoom meetings between families and patients. The Morristown nurses also go “old school” to connect with patients, posting information in their rooms about favorite foods, family members, hobbies and pets so all team members can better relate to them.

Let’s face it: Our often confusing and topsy turvy world would be much bleaker without nurses and their many roles. Despite all the noise, Milli says, nurses still do all they can to support patients: “The patient voice is very important to us.”

Want to learn more about clinical research at the Atlantic Health System? Click here.

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