Registered nurses are arguably the most underappreciated of all healthcare professionals. In public hospitals and clinics throughout the United States -- particularly in rural and low-income areas -- they are the men and women who perform much of the hardest work. At many HIV medical facilities, HIV-positive patients often get to know their nurses far better than they know their doctors. It's nurses who often teach patients how HIV medications work, provide adherence support and fill up pill boxes. And it's nurses who often become key providers of counseling and encouragement in what can be an antiseptic environment.
Like physicians, nurse practitioners and physician assistants, registered nurses must complete formal training to earn their stripes, and they are required to log many hours every year of continuing medical education to ensure their clinical knowledge stays current. Nurses can also join one of several membership groups, such as the Association of Nurses in AIDS Care, to obtain more knowledge about HIV care.
The Body's 10 HIV Leadership Award winners in nursing carry out a wide range of duties, displaying the medley of skills and roles that HIV nurses are often called upon to fill. Our winners also care for a diverse spectrum of people infected with HIV, from military personnel to incarcerated men and women, and from indigent rural patients in Kentucky to homeless people and substance abusers in San Francisco.
Sandra Charles, for instance, is a clinical trial nurse at the San Francisco Veterans Hospital. Research nurses do the nuts-and-bolts work for clinical trials, effectively making them the ones who keep such studies running. They coordinate patient recruitment, ensure that study volunteers receive excellent medical care and help analyze data from study volunteers.
Meanwhile, Cyndee Burton represents another type of nurse. Several years ago, she founded an HIV clinic in rural Henderson, Kentucky, to provide much-needed care for HIV-positive people in an area where HIV stigma is very real, and quite intimidating. To this day, protesters still occasionally gather outside the clinic's front door, holding up signs that say, "Shame on You."
Wherever they work, however they work and whatever their area of expertise, registered HIV nurses are a pivotal piece of the healthcare puzzle in the United States. They are, in many ways, the backbone of HIV care -- and if you see one at a hospital or clinic anytime soon, be sure to thank them for the outstanding, too-often-unnoticed work they do.