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How Much is a Nurse Worth?

I read an article on Yahoo! yesterday that said a school in New York City is offering teachers $125,000 to work at their school. Are they serious? $125,000? It reminded me of the on-going argument with my sister-in-law, who is an elementary school teacher and myself, who was a critical care/trauma/flight RN. We both have children. She was complaining she was only making $38,000 per year (this was fifteen years ago). I was making the same amount.

Her argument was that teachers mold children and can help a child develop into a model citizen if taught by the right teacher, or a derelict if taught by the wrong teacher. My argument was that none of those kids would end up dead if a teacher made one mistake one day. I worked with the sickness kids see. Babies with overdoses, thrown from cars from not being in car seats. Child abuse of a multitude of methods. Kids hit by cars.

And I did my job on twelve-hour night shifts, weekends, holidays. I didn’t get summer off, or weekends, or nights. If my beeper went off at 3 a.m., I had to be awake and alert and into a helicopter within seven minutes. If it was minus-ten degrees out, or 100 degrees out, I was out there, in a nomex flight suit and work boots, helmet and nomex gloves. I once stayed at a traffic accident in northern New Jersey during a three-hour extrication. We had to change out IV fluids and tubing because it froze in the minus-thirteen degree winter night. We then had a twenty-minute flight to the trauma center and the unfortunate man, who was driving along, minding his own business, died. And then we had to fly back to our hangar and clean out the blood and vomit and trash from the flight.

On our first Memorial Day, we got our first call at 6 p.m. We had our last at 3 a.m. The pilot and I sat in the empty cafeteria of the trauma center and ate rubber hotdogs. We were supposed to be done at 11 p.m., but we were on our way back home to the base and got a request, which we took. And then another. I spent my first case under a blanket, trying to establish an IV line while the fire department removed the top of the pickup truck to get the woman out. We spent about an hour at the scene and finally got the woman out. She lived. I find that miraculous.

My sister-in-law, on the other hand, spent her Memorial Day having a barbeque, swimming in her pool and having fun with her friends and family. The same for the 4th of July; while she lounged, I was stuck at drag races at Englishtown, NJ, on hand for any emergencies. There weren’t any, but we did transport a young man who jumped on top of a train and was electrocuted. We left as soon as possible and flew the patient to a burn center, where he recovered, although he lost an arm and both legs.

And before being a Flight RN, I worked in Level I inner city trauma center, in the city named “poorest city in America” by Time magazine. I saw horrible injuries from car wrecks, gunshot wounds, stabbings and beatings. The average length of service of a trauma nurse is twelve months; I stayed full-time for five years. When I left, I was second in seniority among staff. The first in seniority is still there, twenty years later. God Bless him! The first summer I worked there, we had three boys, all brain-dead from getting hit by cars and all had their organs harvested. I went in with one of the boys. I never want to see a harvest of organs again. In June, we had three girls, all under the age of twelve who were brain-dead and also had their organs harvested. We lost a number of staff members that summer.

And, my last job, before becoming disabled from lupus and fibromyalgia, was in a medical ICU. I worked nights, holidays and weekends. I cleaned up poop, vomit, sputum. I dealt with confused patients, getting kicked, biting and punched. And, at least once a week, a patient coded (or e.g. cardiac arrested in layman’s terms). At times, they came back, but other times they didn’t. And I started seeing Lupus patients, which frightened me. It was a harbinger of things to come and it came true: I’ve been an ICU patient two times in the last two years.

Meanwhile, my sister-in-law has obtained her master’s degree and I’m sure is getting paid a lot more than she did fifteen years ago. But she doesn’t have to deal with sick kids: I don’t mean tummy aches or headaches. I mean seizing fourteen-month-olds, or my favorite, the baby who would cardiac arrest if her “binky” fell out of her mouth. I was on “binky” patrol for that flight.

The average RN makes about $40,000 a year. More if you work through an agency or in an inner city hospital. But you pay for parking, and if you live in NJ and work in Philadelphia, you have a $4 bridge toll and Pennsylvania taxes. University Hospitals are great places to learn new procedures and clinical trials; but as you get older, you realize that the frantic pace of ICU’s and Flight RNs is for younger people. You look for those “easier” jobs, like Visiting Nurses. I worked for the VNA in Florida and had to see eight patients in eight hours, all in different parts of the county. I ate lunch in my car and did paperwork at home at night.

Teachers get time for lunch. They also get “prep” time. I guess this means they don’t have work to do at home. And if they say something inappropriate to a student, the student won’t drop dead there and then. I think teachers are paid just fine. We pay over $5000 a year in taxes, which is high for our county. My son’s teacher doesn’t seem to know what to do with him, because he scores 98-106 on tests and has missed twenty-four days of school this year, some of which were legitimate and others because he was worried when I was sick that I’d be by myself. He was in the Gifted Class, which was one forty-minute class a week and the work was boring. I was in a gifted class in 1970-1972— the first gifted class in the school district. I learned more in those two years than I did at any other time in my education. It’s because we had a dedicated and creative teacher- now Dr. Weiner, who went on to teach at Temple University. If I was a teacher, I would be like him. I know a lot of the projects were his doing and we were out of the classroom at least 3 days a week. If anyone deserved $125,000 to teach, Dr. Weiner should be getting it.

As teachers’ salaries rise, so should RN’s. We have similar continuing education requirements, RN’s are licensed by the state; I’m not sure about teachers. We get paid a few cents more for certifications in our specialties, and a few more cents if we have our BSN or MSN. It doesn’t pay to have a master’s degree in nursing if you want to be a clinical RN; Nurse Practitioners are the newest idea in medicine. Many doctor’s employ NP’s to care for the uncomplicated patients. But even NPs say it’s boring in doctor’s offices and come back to clinical nursing.

Of course, this argument will go on forever. I think RN’s are underpaid, understaffed, and under-recognized. Teachers get all sorts of gifts from their students at Christmas and the end of school. Nurses are not allowed to take gifts from patients. I doubt my son’s teacher is going to get an end of school gift this year.