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Empowering Our Nurses

How Critical Care Nurses Changed the World

Photos: Courtesy of American Association of Critical-Care Nurses

As COVID-19 cases surged, critical care nurses stepped up as leaders, providing complex and compassionate care, and demonstrating the fundamental importance of critical care nursing. 

That is not to say the past year has been easy. Healthcare professionals worked around the clock to care for what sometimes felt like a never-ending stream of patients. It was often demanding and emotionally exhausting. 

Yet, for many of us, 2020 and 2021 represent everything that made us love critical care nursing in the first place: delivering compassionate care to patients at their most vulnerable moments, and expanding our expertise and critical thinking skills.

We were empowered to use our skill set, knowledge, and empathy to truly change the course of history during a global pandemic. The world had a front-row seat to what we do as critical care nurses and now has a newfound appreciation for our work. I hope that as we move out of this tough period, aspiring nurses, students, and current nurses will remember our impact and understand why nursing is such a rewarding profession. 

The time is right

For those hoping to pursue a career in critical care nursing, you could not choose a better time to start. There are more opportunities than ever to choose a role that fits your interests and the public’s needs. Critical care nurses can work in a variety of settings and with a spectrum of populations, such as: 

  • Cardiac care – for patients experiencing diseases related to the heart
  • Pediatrics – treating children and adolescents
  • Neonatal – caring for newborn infants
  • Telehealth and electronic intensive care units (eICUs) – interacting with patients in a remote setting using technological tools 
  • Recovery rooms – where patients recover from anesthesia post-surgery
  • Telemetry units – for patients who need constant monitoring
  • Leadership roles – nurse manager, for example 

How do you choose the right area of specialty? In my experience, finding your passion is a great place to start. Are you drawn to a specific patient population, such as pediatrics or neonatal? Do you enjoy traveling or working in a nontraditional work environment? Maybe you would enjoy being a travel nurse or flight nurse, or perhaps working in an eICU.


Keep in mind that like any career, nursing careers often evolve over time. In my ICU, many advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs) — registered nurses who are educated at master’s or post-master’s level within a specific patient population or role — first started as nurses. They gained clinical expertise as expert critical care nurses and found which specialty they enjoyed most. 

Other nurses who started in my ICU have gone on to fulfill leadership roles, like associate chief nursing officer or head of the continuous renal replacement therapy program — an evolution I find incredibly fulfilling to watch.   

There will always be a need for critical care nurses in these varied and exciting roles, and I am thrilled to see aspiring and current nurses taking note. Enrollment in baccalaureate nursing programs increased nearly 6 percent in 2020, to 250,856, according to preliminary results from an annual survey of 900 nursing schools by the American Association of Colleges of Nursing. The number of APRNs in the United States has grown exponentially over the past decade. 

If these statistics and the past year are any indication, the nursing profession will continue to be a dynamic field, but one thing will always stay the same: the feeling that comes with providing compassionate care to patients when they need it most. 

In this Year of the Nurse, I want to thank the countless nurses who have used their expert knowledge to deliver empathetic care to complex and challenging critically ill patients during a healthcare crisis of epic proportions. Your dedication and sacrifice are revolutionizing the nursing profession and inspiring the next generation of capable, compassionate nurses. 

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