Back in 1980, an op-ed article in the New York Times laid out what the author saw as an escalating crisis that threatened the nation's health care system: a nursing shortage.
"Hospital beds are being cut back, operating rooms are being closed, and critical-care services reduced because there are not enough nurses," William A. Knaus, co-director of the intensive care unit at George Washington University medical center, wrote. The problem, he explained, was that higher-paying, more-prestigious professions had opened to women and, as a result, fewer women were opting for low-paying, grueling and emotionally draining nursing jobs. Knaus worried that without qualified, experienced nurses reviewing doctors' orders and keeping a careful watch over patients, more people might not survive their hospital stays.
We might still be worrying about all that, if it hadn't been for a nurse named Vernice D. Ferguson.
Ferguson, who died on Dec. 8 at age 84 in Washington, D.C., used her position as chief nursing officer of the Veterans Administration - the largest provider of nursing in the nation - from 1980 to 1992 to campaign for better wages, education and opportunities and for more respect for her profession. She pushed for nurses to be excused from menial work such as making beds and answering phones, so that they could focus on patient care, and she fought to get nurses the same sort of access to scholarship money and training programs as physicians got. She also promoted the concept of nurses doing clinical research, and organized an network of nurse researchers at the VA. "What is good enough for the doctor is good enough for me and the nursing staff," she once told an interviewer. "Whatever the boys have, I'm going to get the same thing for the girls."
During Ferguson's tenure, the number of VA nurses with bachelor's degrees or higher more than doubled, and that elevation in prestige had a ripple effect on the profession nationwide. When Ferguson began at the VA in 1980, the average annual salary of nurses across the nation was just $15,502 (about $41,651 today, adjusted for inflation). By the time she left in 1992, nurses' salaries had increased by roughly 50 percent. And the number of registered nurses employed nationwide grew, from about 1.25 million in 1980 to about 1.8 million in 1992, according to a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services report.
Though she didn't have an M.D. after her name, Ferguson received numerous awards and honors - including eight honorary doctorates - in her lifetime, according an article in the website of her alma mater, New York University. In 1998, the American Academy of Nursing honored her as a "living legend."
Photo: New York University