1. McSpedon, Corinne


Missouri sends its first nurse to Congress.


Article Content

Cori Bush has many titles: RN, pastor, activist, and-since January-congresswoman. After defeating a 10-term incumbent in the Democratic primary campaign last year, she won the November general election in Missouri's 1st Congressional District, which encompasses St. Louis, for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. Bush is the first Black woman to represent her state in Congress and the first woman representative in her district in its almost 200-year history. In the midst of a global pandemic, she is also believed to be the first nurse representing Missouri in Washington, DC. Bush says she was surprised to learn this, "but I'm glad that we're here and that I'll be the first of many."

Figure. U.S. Rep. Co... - Click to enlarge in new windowFigure. U.S. Rep. Cori Bush (D-MO). Photo courtesy of Cori Bush.

She notes that it's essential for the voices of nurses to be heard in these "unprecedented times," when the country is experiencing a record-breaking number of COVID-19 deaths and an ongoing Black maternal and infant mortality crisis, all while millions of people are uninsured and underinsured. "It's critical that nurses have a seat at the table when it comes to the policies coming out of Congress," Bush says. "Every single policy needs a nurse's eye. We talk a lot about the social determinants of health, because it's all connected . . . nurses see things in a different way."


Her work in Congress, she says, focuses on "doing the very most for everyone in our community, starting with those who have the very least, because that's what nurses do. We help advance policies that will meet the needs of vulnerable people." This includes advocating for community-based programs, the placement of more nurses in schools, and funding for community health centers and pipeline programs, "so our health care workforce will better reflect the communities they serve," she explains.



Bush is a progressive Democrat known for her support of Medicare and education for all, economic justice, and the Green New Deal. One of her legislative priorities is enacting COVID-19 relief that provides for a recurring monthly payment of $2,000, retroactive to the start of the pandemic. Bush is also an activist and organizer, most notably as part of the Black Lives Matter movement during the protests that followed the killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, in August 2014. Perhaps less well-known is the way her training as a nurse has informed both her politics and her activism.


She was exposed to the profession at a young age. "Both of my grandmothers were in nursing. I would always see them-in their white outfits, white stockings, white shoes, white hats-off of work, but I never saw them actually working," says Bush. One day, when she was about 13 years old and working as a candy striper at her local hospital, Bush was assigned to assist a Black nurse who inspired her to pursue a career in nursing. "I was just amazed watching her, how she worked," recalls Bush. "The passion she showed for her patients, how the patients responded to her, her intelligence-I was like, 'I want to become a nurse, I want to be like her.'"


Bush graduated from the Lutheran School of Nursing in St. Louis in 2007 and spent the first few years of her career at a nearby hospital, caring for people receiving kidney-liver and kidney-pancreas transplants. She subsequently became a pastor and founded her own church, Kingdom Embassy International Church, in St. Louis in 2011. During this time, she transitioned to community health work, eventually serving as the nurse manager of a community-based mental health clinic's outpatient sites. Among the patients she cared for were victims of human trafficking. Through her work as both a nurse and a pastor, she says, "We did a lot of outreach. But I didn't really consider it activism, it was just part of the ministry."


Two days after Brown was killed, her employer sent a health care mobile response team to Ferguson. Bush was the nurse on the team, which also included a therapist, a physician, and counselors. Amid the growing protest movement, they parked their van a few feet from where Brown was killed. Every day for five weeks, Monday to Friday, from 8 AM to 5 PM, the team offered "grief and trauma services to the community," she says. "We knocked on people's doors in the apartment complex, asking if they needed any help. Some people wouldn't come out because they were so traumatized by what they saw. We were treating people for tear gas exposure, and people who had surgery and couldn't get out of their homes for follow-up appointments . . . giving them bags of food and diapers and toiletries."


Bush, who is a single mother of two, would return home each evening to care for her children, who were in their early teens, and then "go right back to the street and protest all night," she says. "I'm a nurse, I could assist people medically on the street, but I'm also clergy, so I could pray with people. I didn't go there thinking it would last more than a day or two." She attended the protests for more than 400 days.



Bush says that the lack of meaningful support from elected officials during the protests in Ferguson was pivotal in her decision to run for office. "We could count on one hand how many elected officials were actually a part of what was going on," she notes. Although activists and community leaders urged her to seek public office, Bush was initially reluctant. Her father has been a local politician for most of her life, she explains, and observing his experiences led her to conclude, "I just didn't want any part of it." Bush changed her mind, she says, when she realized "my son could be the next hashtag, or my daughter, or someone else I knew. That they could be the next hashtag, and I could have done something about it and didn't."


Her first two campaigns were unsuccessful-Bush ran for a U.S. Senate seat from Missouri in 2016 and then, in 2018, for the same House seat she would win two years later. Bush's advocacy for nurse representation was apparent almost immediately after her election in November, when she worked with President-Elect Biden and Vice President-Elect Harris's transition team to ensure that a nurse-Jane Hopkins, RNMH, a mental health specialist-was added to their Transition COVID-19 Advisory Board, which didn't initially include any nurses.


Nurse representation is important, Bush says, because "we look at the whole person. We're looking at your support system, and we're looking at the best way to educate you about a condition. If we don't have nurses in DC, then we have policies that miss the whole person." To illustrate her point, Bush recalls a discussion she observed, in which policymakers were talking about ways to ensure that patients, particularly those living a transient lifestyle, made it to their health care appointments. They were focused on access to care and medications, Bush says, "but because a nurse was not at the table and in the meetings, they missed a very big thing, which is transportation. That's why a lot of people don't make it to their appointments."



Nurses are particularly attuned to the types of lived experiences that can inform policymaking, notes Bush. "Nurses do the deep work, nurses do the research, but they also have the experiences of being at the bedside." She believes nurses are ideally suited for legislative roles because "we're taught how to lead. We're taught how to empower, to educate, and to advocate, and that's what we need today in leaders." Without nurse involvement in health care decision-making, she points out, "we'll have people who don't understand our work dictating how we should work and what our community needs."


Bush recommends that nurses interested in politics or activism determine "what they're passionate about and then educate themselves as much as they can in those areas." Her own approach is to ask herself, "What are we missing? What don't we have? What am I noticing that my patients are talking about a lot? Because if people are talking about it," Bush observes, "the need is there."-Corinne McSpedon, senior editor