Vicki Smith of Kingsport was totally surprised when a knock on her door produced gifts and balloons honoring her job as a nurse.
"It really made my day special," she said.
The gifts commemorating National Nurses Week were presented by Ezra Howard-Smith, an 11-year-old Sevier Middle School sixth grader, and Ezekiel Gentry, a 15-year-old ninth grader at Dobyns-Bennett High School. Both young men are members of Kingsport's New Vision Youth group. Director Johnnie Mae Swagerty said when the call went out in the group for volunteers to present the gifts, both Ezra and Ezekiel, whose mom is a medical technician, were the first to sign up.
"When I opened the door and saw them standing there," Ms. Smith laughs, "first thing that went through my mind was 'well, it's not my birthday.' I didn't have to wonder for long, because they both said 'Happy Nurses Week' with big smiles on their faces and I thought, 'well how nice.'"
Smith's particular nursing career spans almost 40 years, first as a licensed practical nurse, then as a registered nurse. She says most of her work has been as an occupational caretaker, hired by businesses in the role of company nurse. She retired three years ago, and currently serves as Parrish nurse at Central Baptist Church.
The gifts she received included cards, balloons and a coffee mug. Swagerty says they were just small tokens of the much larger appreciation owed to all nurses.
"We forget sometimes the level of care that nurses give us, even before we see a doctor," she says. "A nurse is the first person you see when you're sick, they're taking notes, asking questions and taking vital signs that help the doctor with the right diagnosis. It's a big responsibility that most people take for granted, but deep down, we appreciate what nurses do."
The spread of COVID-19 has shined a huge spotlight on the nursing industry, and the care they give that is sometimes overlooked.
"Right now, nurses are on the front lines of the coronavirus," Smith says. "They are the first level of compassion between the patient, the family and the doctor. They're right there in the middle of everything, through the pain, the healing, the recovery and unfortunately sometimes, the sorrow. Nurses heal when the patient heals. Nurses grieve when the family grieves. It's a difficult job sometimes, but you have to have the heart for it. When the patient gets to go home, as a nurse, it gives you a feeling of accomplishment that motivates you to the next person.
"In reality, nurses are the first line of defense to any illness," she continued. "Nursing becomes part of you, because just out of the blue, you become an unofficial advisor to people, helping them guard against health problems. It's a matter of trust."
As a nurse, Smith did not have to advise Ezra and Ezekiel to protect themselves when they visited. In these times of COVID-19, both already had on protective masks and were careful to maintain social distancing, as recommended by Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee.
"It's amazing sometimes how children understand situations faster than adults," Swagerty says. "They get in the habit of doing the right thing even without being told. Developing positive habits like that is one thing we emphasize in the New Vision Youth group."
The social distancing did not prevent the smiles on Smith's front porch. She says for any nurse to get a surprise like the one she got during National Nurses Week is a blessing. But Swagerty says, honoring those in the nursing profession should be a year-round tribute, not just for a day or a week.
"Actually we care for them just as much as they care for us, and this little token of appreciation is for all nurses," she says. "By leaving their homes and families right now and risking their own health during the coronavirus pandemic, they're literally putting their lives on the line to care for us. Just like with our first responders, we just can't say thank you enough."
On a related note, Swagerty says the New Vision Youth group is also giving away masks like the ones the young men wore to Ms. Smith's home. They're free to anybody who needs one, while supplies last. Call (423) 429-7553 to arrange to get one.