1. Santandrea, Lisa


A tragedy and a film, both astonishing, illuminate our everyday heroes.


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On the eighth floor of St. Vincents Hospital in New York City, a sign told the story: "Please accept our apology in any delay in service," it stated simply. "We have suffered an unsettling loss of four nurses in a tragic accident."


It was September 24, 2000, and the nurses on the neonatal intensive care unit had heard the news: their colleagues Mary Ann Going, Kathleen Mollick-Kelly, Joan Ellen Walsh, and Mary Ann Dono had been killed instantly when their car unaccountably crashed through the fifth-floor wall of a parking garage in Virginia Beach.


"It was amazing how the city rallied around us after the accident," said Toni Cesta, PhD, RN, FAAN, director of case management at St. Vincents. "It was really an outpouring of support that highlighted how positively the public views nurses." The day after the accident, crews from all major television networks parked outside the hospital where Mollick-Kelly had been the head nurse of pediatrics and obstetrics-gynecology, and Dono, Going, and Walsh had worked on the hospital's NICU. Usually overlooking the achievements of nurses, the news media paid homage to four lives untouched by fame.


Dono, Going, Mollick-Kelly, and Walsh graduated from St. Vincents and spent their entire careers there-collectively dedicating nearly 160 years of service to the hospital. Brian Caulfield, a journalist whose one-day-old son was on the NICU at the time of the accident, attested to their influence on the nurses and families on the unit. "All the nurses told me how much they owed to these women."


In a society in which heroes are often determined by wealth, power, or physical prowess, the widespread attention to this story highlights just how many nursing heroes remain unsung. But to a new generation of nurses, this sort of attention to nursing isn't enough. Believing it's time for nurses to have more visibility, Claire Marie Panke, another St. Vincents NICU nurse and a filmmaker, is one of those using the power of the media to spotlight nurses. FIGURES 1-4

Figure 1 - Click to enlarge in new windowFigure 1. Mary Ann Dono
Figure 2 - Click to enlarge in new windowFigure 2. Mary Ann Going
Figure 3 - Click to enlarge in new windowFigure 3. Kathleen Mollick-Kelly
Figure 4 - Click to enlarge in new windowFigure 4. Joan Eilen Walsh


During a screenwriting workshop in 1993, NICU nurse Claire Marie Panke found inspiration. "What I saw on the NICU just blew all the other stories away," she says. "I realized that real life offers stories of drama and heroism that people cannot make up." And so after seven years of hard work, her first documentary, "A Baby's Battle for Life," debuted on the Discovery Channel on October 7, 2000.


The film, which Panke is distributing as "A Chance to Grow," depicts the struggles of three premature infants and their parents. "Too often," she notes, "the focus of this type of story is on doctors and technology." Panke wanted to investigate the personal dimension of these stories. A neonatal nurse since 1989, she felt that her nursing experience helped to make parents comfortable.


Panke relied primarily on nurses for the film's medical perspective, disturbed by the usual media portrayal of nurses as "neutered people running around doing what the doctor tells them. I wanted to give nurses a voice," she says.


Panke is now herself giving voice to the plight of the nursing profession, having appeared in three television commercials and on two radio spots urging Congress to restore dwindling funds to hospitals.


Lisa Santandrea