At the height of World War II, as U.S. troops fought fierce battles in Asia, Africa and Europe, Americans back on the home front were facing a severe shortage of skilled nurses. In response, the U.S. Congress drafted legislation designed to make the nursing profession more accessible - especially to women and racial minorities such as African-Americans.
The so-called Bolton Act, which became law on June 15, 1943, provided funding for better nurse training, set up programs to boost public recognition of the profession and laid the groundwork for the well-trained corps of highly-skilled nursing professionals the nation enjoys today.
May Wykle is a 40-year veteran of nursing and dean of the Frances Payne Bolton School of Nursing in Cleveland, Ohio. She believes her profession is thriving.
"The outlook for nurses is bright, and particularly in the ailing economy. By 2012, the health care practitioners will probably need to add over a million jobs. So registered nurses as an occupation continues because we have to take care of people."
An unsung hero
Wykle says the modern nursing profession didn't really come into its own until Congress passed the Bolton Act of 1943, which, like Wykle's Ohio nursing school, was named after Congresswoman Frances Payne Bolton, a women's rights activist who spearheaded the legislation. Wykle says the law enabled African-Americans like herself to go into a field that previously had been barred to them.
"It was an opportunity for African-Americans to come into nursing because one of the things that Frances Payne Bolton stipulated was that they could not segregate. So it was a big boost to bring minorities into nursing.I think he is 'an unsung hero' for creating opportunities for minorities to come into nursing."
Getting the respect they deserve
But despite the expanded opportunities to enter the nursing profession over the past 6 decades, Wykle says American nurses are still fighting to gain the professional respect she believes they deserve. "Nursing has struggled for some time to get its due, you know, We've always been known in the past as a handmaiden to the physician. And to really come into its own as being collaborative and someone who can be very helpful in terms of bringing quality health care to many people.
"I think any doctor would tell you that a nurse is the actual keystone of the medical profession."That's Greg Whittier, a clinical medical assistant at the Virginia Spine Institute in Reston, Virginia.
"They have the first interaction with the patient. They are the only ones that are there consistently while the doctor isn't there, and they are the ones constantly giving care."
Nurses find opportunities to change lives
Indeed, most nurses today see themselves as essential players in quality patient care. Jill Sekscienski is a registered nurse at Sibley Hospital in Washington, D.C. She has been in the nursing profession for 22 years.
"You know I think if you ask patients what makes the difference when they go into a hospital for care, many of them will tell you that the nurses are the ones that pull them through."
Sekscienski gives an recall of an incident that she says helps explain why she feels so passionately about her job.
"A man came up to me and said to me, said to my children, said, 'Excuse me, is this your mother?' and the kids looked at him and said, 'Yes it is.' And he said, 'I just want you to know that your mother changed my life' and [he] proceeded to tell them that I was involved in the care of his father, who was critically ill, and he lived through that experience, and he has been able to meet that particular man's 6 children as a result. So, you know, how do you measure something like that?"
A thriving profession
There are financial rewards to nursing, as well. Salaries for registered nurses in the United States average over $60,000 per year and can reach as high as $80,000. But the personal and professional benefits of nursing still need to be more widely promoted, says May Wykle at the Frances Payne Bolton School. She notes that many of the country's 2.9 million nurses are nearing retirement age, and the profession needs to attract a new generation of nurses.
Wykle is confident it will, despite the economic downturn. The Bureau of Labor Statistics is projecting more than 587,000 new nurse positions will be created through 2016.
"One of the nice things about being into nursing is that you can change your career. You can be a teacher. You can be an administrator. You can specialize in a different field. You can work out in the community. You can work in the schools, and so there's a lot more to it than just the acute-care hospitals, where we see a lot of nurses working."
Wykle says there's always going to be a need for nurses at the bedside, in administration and teaching and in the various specialties.
For nurse Jill Sekscienski at Sibley Hospital, the strongest appeal of her profession remains the deep satisfaction that comes from helping people who are in great need.
"Despite the challenges, I think it's one of those professions that at the end of the day, you know that what you do really matters."
One of the world's most famous nurses, Florence Nightingale, is being honored this week. She was a 19th-century humanitarian considered by many to be the founder of modern nursing. In the United States, Nightingale's birthday on May 12th caps National Nurses Week - a time when the American nursing community works to raise awareness of the critical role they play in protecting the public health.