by C.J. Hirschfield

Television icon Mr. Rogers famously quoted his mother’s advice on how to deal with scary situations. “Look for the helpers,” she said, adding that there are always helpers.

Today we’re talking a lot about the helpers as we deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, with medical workers and others being shown heartfelt appreciation in different ways, and all around the world.

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Noting that “at no time in recent history has the vital role of nurses in American been so clear,” independent art house film distributor Kino Lorberhas chosen to honor today’s front-line nurses by offering a free streaming re-release of the acclaimed documentary The American Nurse: Healing America, through the month of May. Timed to coincide with National Nurses Week May 6-12, the film was originally released to theaters in 2014.

This excellent documentary by filmmaker Carolyn Jones could not be more timely—or inspiring. Why do people make the choice to help others, and what are their joys and challenges?

Director Jones says that “I just thought a nurse was just a nurse. And then I got cancer.” And although she had a slew of doctors treating her, it was nurse Rhonda Collins that she says got her through it, and inspired her to write a book, and make this film.

American Nurse follows five nurses–three females and two males—in their diverse specialties, including veterans, the incarcerated, the elderly, newborns and the rural poor. I had to turn away at certain points as they deal with medical conditions that aren’t pretty—but that’s the point. They never turn away—and what if that patient was your loved one?

The overriding theme of the film to me is the remarkable level of intimacy and trust that marks the nurse/patient relationship. When labor and delivery nurse Naomi Cross holds the hand of a woman in labor and tells her “I’m not leaving you,”; when Sister Stephen plays the autoharp for an elderly woman who is on the verge of death; when Tonia Faust helps a dying prisoner connect with his daughter after 20 years; it becomes clear that nurses minister to the soul, as well as the body.

There are many moments of grace to inspire in American Nurse. Elderly patients who light up when they’re given a tiny chick to hold, a newborn baby being gently given his first hair wash (“The best part of my day,” says Nurse Cross), a nurse fighting a flooded-out road to reach his rural Appalachian patient.

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Labor and delivery nurse Naomi Cross hugs a new mother.

The husband of one nurse makes the important point that nurses need supportive family and friends, given the demanding nature of the work.

While watching the film my heart hurt every time I saw a nurse hug, or hold the hand of a patient, or comfort a family member–which was often. Although our nurses today don’t have these options, they continue doing everything they can—including offering Facetime communication with loved ones—to console those in their care during this epic battle.

Director Jones makes the point that at some time in our life, each of us will encounter a nurse, either as a patient, or a loved one, and that that one encounter can mean the difference between suffering and peace; between chaos and order.

We’re aware of this now more than ever.

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Eldercare nurse Sister Stephen comforts a patient in her final days.

The film’s free release is made possible by Fresenius Kabi, a company dedicated to putting lifesaving medicines and technologies in the hands of nurses and other caregivers, and to find answers to the challenges they face.

Stream and Watch American Nurse here.

Learn more about the American Nurse Project, the filmmakers, director Jones’ book and how to get involved.

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C.J. Hirschfield recently retired after 17 years as Executive Director of Children’s Fairyland, where she was charged with the overall operation the nation’s first storybook theme park. Prior to that, she served as an executive in the cable television industry and produced two series, ran San Francisco’s public access channel and has written a weekly column for the Piedmont Post for 13 years. She has also written features and reviews for EatDrinkFilms. She holds a degree in Film and Broadcasting from Stanford University.

Hirschfield is former president and board member of the California Attractions and Parks Association, and also serves on the boards of Visit Oakland and the Lake Merritt/Uptown Business Improvement District and is on the programming team for the Appreciating Diversity Film series showing free monthly movies in Oakland and Piedmont. C.J. says, “Documentaries make me a better person.”

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