Updated: May 27
I interviewed Jessica in the little red "she-shed” behind her house.
She has a desk, a futon, and a massage table. She makes her way to the she-shed when she needs a moment to herself, when she needs to decompress after work, or when she gives the occasional massage.
Jessica is a modern-day healer and has spent her life following this calling. She started out as a massage therapist and found her way to nursing. She has worked in a variety of settings all over the United States and has experienced for-profit and non-profit healthcare systems. Through all its ups and downs, Jessica loves her career as a nurse. Despite her best efforts, she cannot imagine doing anything else.
Jessica lives in a large Montana city with a population just under 20,000 at the 2010 census. In fact, Montana is classified as a rural state by the federal government no matter where you live within its borders. This town has become a regional hub for healthcare and the local healthcare system is rapidly expanding its services. It is also rapidly acquiring or partnering with physician practices and smaller hospitals. This means that, except for a handful of independent physician practices, this healthcare system is the only game in town.
When workplace challenges became too much to bear, Jessica banded together with fellow nurses to initiate a unionization effort.
She didn’t want to leave her idyllic town or her career. I had the privilege of interviewing Jessica about a week before the nurses went to vote. She was tired but hopeful. She had been working her job, learning all the ins and outs of what it means to unionize, educating other nurses about unionization, and dealing with loss in her own life. She had a friend who was dying of cancer as all of this was happening. I think the she-shed must have been holding her together.
What I know from interviewing Jessica and through observing nurses in my roles as social worker, advocate, and patient is that nurses can take a lot. They are tough and tender, organized and flexible, stern and loving. They administer magic bandaids and magic morphine drips. They can console someone on the worst day of their life and then fill out paperwork and return home to their families with the trials of the day neatly tucked away inside. Nurses have a very high threshold for enduring disrespectful behavior. They also have their limits. Whatever your views on unions, I know that if you can mobilize a group of worn out nurses to spend their free time taking on their healthcare employer, something is wrong.
I have taken on the role of investigative reporter — not of facts, but of emotional trends in healthcare through the stories of individual healthcare professionals. The detailed circumstances that led to Jessica’s unionization efforts are not the focus here. If you work in healthcare, I’ll bet you have a few ideas about what’s going on in Jessica’s big Montana city. Instead, the objective is to uncover the emotional experiences that brought Jessica (the healer, the nurse, the human) to this moment.
Jessica’s song is about being seen as a whole person. It is about being recognized as an intelligent and hardworking member of a healthcare team. It is about the profound spiritual moments that make all the hard moments worth it. It is about prioritizing human connection over financial gain.
Some friends joined me for a jam session in the “Garage Mahal” to give life to Jessica’s song. I want to thank these guys for making music with me: Lucas Jack on keys, Toby Ferguson on drums, and (my love) Andy Belski on bass. And, thanks to Julie Kunkel, author of the blog This American Wife for her iPhone camera work. Jessica's song is calledThe Light in Her Eyes. Production of the song is underway (along with a couple other songs) and I cannot wait to share the finished version with you.
Please watch the video, share with your coworkers and friends, leave comments, and stay tuned for the studio version of the song.
P.S. The nurses voted to unionize.
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