'The American Nurse' Celebrates Unsung Healing Heroes on the Frontlines of Health Care

PHOTO: Naomi Cross carries baby Felix to his mom, moments after his birth.

Photographer Carolyn Jones, inspired by the woman who nursed her though chemotherapy for breast cancer, traveled the country in 2012 to interview 110 of the nation's finest nurses.

The end result is the American Nurse Project, personal stories of nurses of every stripe from every facet of society captured through photography and film.

In the documentary, “The American Nurse,” Jones (“Living Proof: Courage in the Face of AIDS”) and her producer Lisa Frank, highlight those who “make the difference between suffering and peace; between chaos and order. ... Nurses understand humanity in a way that no one else does."

The film opens at Digiplex Theaters nationwide on May 8 and at the Quad Cinema in New York City on May 16.

“My knowledge of nursing was nil and limited to nurses in a hospital,” said Jones, who was given extraordinary access to the work of five nurses who are on the frontlines of the health care system.

“The film shows a lot of the issues we are dealing with as a country through the lens of nursing –- returning war vets, poverty, end-of-life issues. I wanted to look at what health care looks like in the most and least populated parts of the country. What is it like in the coal mines?”

Jones said she had “rich, deep conversations” with nurses about the state of health care in America and hoped to elevate their voices.

“Why don’t we have more nurses at the table when we are talking about hospitals running more efficiently?” she asked. “We should talk to nurses before we go to war. ... Our health care system is a disaster and we need them. They understand how we function and they certainly know how we die.”

As a group, nurses are “nonjudgmental” in their work, Jones said. “They will help human beings as human beings, whether they committed a crime, shot someone or someone is screaming at them.”

Nurses at their best also hold “no veneer,” according to Jones. “They are authentic and real. ... At their core the, best of humanity.”

“Every day, nurses remind us there is a cycle –- we live and die and get sick and our families mourn and there is another day,” said Jones. “Technology is a miraculous thing and saves our lives, but we have forgotten that someone has to get you and your family through it.”

PHOTO: Sister Stephen kisses a dying patient.
Courtesy The American Nurse Project
PHOTO: Sister Stephen kisses a dying patient.

Sister Stephen brings hope and healing to the Villa Loretto Nursing Home in rural Wisconsin with the help of a farm full of dogs, cows, sheep, llamas, alpaca and ring-tailed lemurs. She also holds therapeutic weekend retreats for victims of trauma and abuse, as well as for foster children and those with emotional difficulties. Sister Stephen says she holds a “soft spot” for the elderly: She and her nurses sing a last hymn to the elderly as they approach end of life.

Brian McMillion talks to a recently-wounded soldier at a U.S. medical center in Germany.
Courtesy The American Nurse Project
Brian McMillion talks to a recently-wounded soldier at a U.S. medical center in Germany.

Brian McMillion, a military nurse with the V.A. San Diego Health System, never thought he would go into nursing. But he has traveled the world as a nurse with the "jungle infantry" and in the military's war on drugs in Panama. Now, he helps injured young soldiers coming back from war tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many are missing limbs or suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. McMillion says there is "no closer tie" than the bonds built around "common suffering."

Naomi hugs patient Becky after the joyous and successful delivery of baby Felix.
Courtesy The American Nurse Project
Naomi hugs patient Becky after the joyous and successful delivery of baby Felix.

Naomi Cross is a labor and delivery nurse at the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. Cross spends most of her days filled with the joy of helping to bring new life into the world. When things don’t go as planned, Cross also serves as a bereavement counselor, pulling from her own experience of loss to counsel a family when their baby dies. Cross understands because she lost her own baby as a result of a miscarriage.

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