COVID-19: Code of Ethics is the Best Map We Have

Post by Tammy L. Marshall

My dear sisters and brothers in professional nursing. For more than 18 years in a row, we have and continue to represent the most trusted profession in America, according to Gallup polls. Year after year, nurses continually are chosen as the most trusted profession because of the public’s perception and experience of our ethics and honesty.

In my humble opinion, it will be nurses who see us through the COVID-19 pandemic. Regardless of the setting we practice in, as nurses, we were given the “map” to navigate through this demanding time. That map is the Code of Ethics for Nurses created by the American Nurses Association in 1950. 

Within the code, we are asked to lead and serve through “non-negotiable” practice guidelines. Those practice guidelines have been and continue to be our map in the field. As the mathematician Alfred Korzybski reminds us, however, “The map is not the territory.”

This phrase will make more sense if you think back to your first day on the job as a nurse, when you had this thought cross your mind, (and I know you did). The thought that sounded like this: “What the hell just happened here? They never taught me that in nursing school.” That, my dear, is called “the territory,” the experience we have that can never be taught through theory or lab. 

I had the very best nursing professors and was provided all the maps during my training, but nothing prepared me for the territory I’ve navigated as well as the Code of Ethics did. Now more than ever, we need to know and follow the ethical guidelines from that code.

By now, all of us have been affected by COVD-19, to varying degrees. I’ve read the stories of how nurses are being deployed to work around the clock, working in the epicenters of patients and residents who are testing positive for COVID-19. Nurses are being asked to sit on ethics committees that decide whether people who are very ill with the virus should remain on ventilators. Some of us sit on task forces that drive COVID-19 policy, whereas others are donned in personal protective equipment, under masks, gowns and gloves, working countless hours at the bedside. This country is desperately relying on every nurse right now, regardless of the practice setting.

There is no map that prepares us the COVID-19 territory. Lean into your experience with countless other viruses and illnesses with an overlay of the Code of Ethics. The code is the very best map we have right now.

The World Health Organization, or WHO, designated 2020 as the Year of the Nurse and Mid-Wife, although I’m sure the organization didn’t know how prophetic that would turn out to be. We are the ones who will make the biggest difference in the lives of thousands of people with this virus. We have the intellect, grit and heart. Be safe, be ethical and be honest in your work.

Tammy L. Marshall is chief experience officer at Thrive Senior Living. She loves to break glass ceilings, both at work and in the minds of those with outdated culture-scape narratives around aging. Marshall became the first woman chief experience officer for aging services, the first woman to sit on Thrive Senior Living’s vision team and the first vice president of strategic planning for one of New York’s largest long-term care systems. She is a keynote speaker around the globe on the topics of ageism, woman in leadership, integrative health and civil rights for those living with changing cognitive abilities, sometimes known as Alzheimer’s and dementia. She is known for her published work on leadership, dementia care, designing environments for older adults and strategic planning. But perhaps she is best known as Mom to her son, Derek.