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In the wake of crises like the tornado that struck Oklahoma, the Boston Marathon bombing and the tropical storm, which wiped out communities in New Jersey and New York, most folks immediately think of the doctors who save and treat the wounded.

But it’s the relationship with nurses in the immediate aftermath of a disaster and their ongoing care that often makes a major difference in a patient’s life.

According to an annual Gallup poll, nurses have been voted the most trusted profession for the 13th year in a row, surpassing doctors and police officers.

In fact, the American Association of Critical Care Nurses has posted on its website links for nurses who want to volunteer their services in the wake of the Oklahoma tornado disaster.

The Association’s National Teaching Institute & Critical Care Exposition and the Advanced Practice Institute is being held this week in Boston, where critical care nurses can update their knowledge and refine their skills.

“By virtue of their roles and the work they do, they care about patients as people and patients recognize that. And because of that patients trust nurses, which allows them to have privileged relationships with patients unlike other members of the health care team,” nurse Alice Benjamin said in a recent interview.

Benjamin, a nationally board certified Advanced Practice Nurse and Clinical Nurse Specialist at Cedars Sinai Medical Center in California, with more than 15 years experience specializing in cardiovascular health, said that for many patients, nurses become extended family. Nurses, she said, are asked the questions that some patients are afraid to ask their doctors and become privy to the back stories that provide critical information to assist in the patient’s care.

Nurses are also the extra ears and eyes when the doctor is not present and they provide the comforting touch that patients and their loved ones need in a time of crisis. Doctors seldom know the whole story and focus on the primary problem that appears to be at issue. It is the nurses who provide information on extenuating circumstances or other issues that may not present themselves, but are underlying problems for patients.

Benjamin, who is also the co-chair of the American Heart/Stroke Association’s Western States Region Health Equity Task Force, has extensive experience in various medical, surgical and even burn intensive care units caring for critically ill patients.

She said it was important for the public to realize that nurses are professionals, not assistants to or employees of doctors.

“Nurses are independent and intelligent licensed health professionals who often times have to be just as smart if not smarter that doctors so we can ensure that what we’re doing based on doctor’s orders are in fact safe and what we know to be in your best interest,” Benjamin said.

Nurses are also responsible, in most instances, of carrying out orders prescribed by doctors.

“They can order all the medications, treatments, monitoring and blood tests and everything else in the world… but who do you think actually does it?” Benjamin said. “Who works the equipment? Who gives the medications? Who changes those wound dressings? Who makes sure the therapist sees you? Who gets your medical equipment ordered? Who gets you that pain pill at 2:30 a.m.? And the list goes on…. If your machines are beeping – please don’t let the doctor touch it – get the nurse!”

Benjamin said nurses are more likely to tell you the real side effects of a medication and usually have gotten enough information from patients, their family and friends to know what other medications are at play and informs the doctor so that there are no contra-indicated problems. She said when patients are confused about problems with a medication or need details for an upcoming test, they are more likely to get a detailed answer from a nurse.

So if a good medical team pulls you through a crisis, don’t just thank your doctor; thank your nurse.

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