Dispatches from the health care front Orthodox nursing director: ‘Chesed is who we are’

Thu, Dec 17, 2020
According to Pirkei Avot, the world stands on three things: Torah, prayer and doing acts of chesed. Defining “chesed” in English is slippery. There’s a biblical context to the meaning that refers to expected relationships and conduct within an established covenant. In our modern era, chesed has been defined as “loving kindness.” It refers to love in action or acts performed out of an altruistic, one-sided giving.

According to Toby Bressler, “Chesed is who are as nurses.” It defines nursing’s core values.

Bressler, Ph.D., RN, OCN, is vice president of the Orthodox Jewish Nurses Association. She also is senior director of Nursing for Oncology and Clinical Quality at the Mount Sinai Health System and assistant professor of Medical Oncology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City.

The OJNA provides a forum to discuss professional issues related to Orthodox Jewish nurses. In response to a 2018 measles outbreak centered in Orthodox Jewish communities in the New York area, a group of OJNA nurses developed the Vaccine Task Force, that aimed to address vaccine hesitancy and misinformation related to vaccine safety. The group provided evidence-based vaccine education to groups of women in intimate settings and created “A Slice Of PIE,” an educational publication that brought current and reliable vaccination information to frum families.

Speaking to the JHV from her office in New York, Bressler said there wasn’t enough data at this time to indicate whether there has been pushback against COVID vaccinations in Orthodox communities.

“The OJNA doesn’t make recommendations as an organization. We do educational work. At this point, based on clinical trials, some vaccines demonstrate more than 90% efficacy against COVID-19. Vaccinations are one of the tools we need to contain this epidemic. The organization takes the stance that, if and when people choose to take the vaccine, we’re looking at a healthier response to the pandemic.”

Bressler noted that her religious beliefs absolutely have helped her deal with adversity during this pandemic.

“My personal deeply rooted faith grounds me,” said Bressler. “It gives me a connection with a higher power so that I know this world is bigger than me.

“Having trust in this higher being gives you freedom to know you’re not in control, but that you can make a difference in everyday life. G-d is there and on your side. Being connected and being in service gives me a clear sense of purpose.”

Unfortunately, little research has been done to examine the experiences of nurses during this health care crisis. In the face of steadily rising death tolls, working longer hours and, in some cases, being forced to stretch their personal protective equipment, many frontline nurses report experiencing feelings of anger, fear, sadness and despair.

Said Bressler: “There’s this sense that, as a registered nurse, you have a front-row seat into some of the most touching and vulnerable moments in a person’s life and death. Holding a notebook so a patient can say goodbye to their child is heartbreaking. You’re holding that burden for the family and that’s a lot to carry around. Nurses are the pillars of strength when families need them the most.

“It’s ironic that last year, well before the pandemic, the World Health Organization designated 2020 as the International Year of the Nurse and the Midwife.”

As nurses brace for a new surge of COVID hospitalizations, the OJNA has created a number of classes in mental health and self-care for nurses.

“We’ve seen the need and our organization has been able to rise to the challenge,” Bressler said. “There’s a lot of work to be done, but we’re getting there.”

OJNA membership is open to any person who is Jewish and a nurse or nursing student. Membership is close to 3,000.

“We provide a host of mentorships, a career development website and resume assistance. We are the first faith-based organization in the American Nurses Association.

“I like what I do and feel proud to be a nurse.”