Nurse John James Jr. says he is "committed to riding this virus out, nurse shortage and all." (Photo: Jackie Ray Bingham/Ray Visions Photography)

Barely two years out of nursing school, John James Jr. found his way onto the pages of The New York Times, as part of an expose’ titled “In Harm’s Way.”

The article spotlights healthcare professionals all over the country, featuring their reflections on caring for COVID-19 patients.

James initially was contacted over social media by the news organ in mid-July. As an ICU nurse at Baptist East Hospital, working long, grueling hours on the COVID-19 wings, there was plenty to reflect on.

“It can be very stressful taking care of patients who are suffering complications from the coronavirus,” James said. “When we first starting dealing with COVID-19, visitation policy had to change. Family members couldn’t get in to see their loved ones unless they were going into surgery, coming out of surgery or it was an end-of-life situation.”

James is a standout, not only because he is male, but also because he is an African-American male.

He was excited in December 2018 when he graduated from the Baptist College of Health Science. Helping to bridge the shortage gap in the profession was foremost in his thinking.

“I wanted my life and my career to have some meaning,” James said. “I wanted my work to impact the lives of those around me.

“I not only loved the idea of becoming a nurse, but the urgent need for more nurses, because of the shortage, added value to my decision to choose nursing as a profession.”

But caring for patients ravaged by a global pandemic was not how James had envisioned his formative, initial years as a registered nurse.

John James Jr: “I love the profession, and despite the extreme emotional lows, nursing is worth the effort. Nursing is worth the risk.” (Photo: Jackie Ray Bingham/Ray Visions Photography)

Long days, pensive nights, frequent death watches with grieving loved ones who cannot be at the bedside, Face-timing the family so they can say their last goodbyes —it has all taken an emotional toll on physicians, nurses and other healthcare professionals on COVID-19 units.

“The shortage has become even more apparent,” James said. “I have not just broken down and had a good cry, but I have watched my colleagues breakdown from the taxing demands of caring for COVID patients.

“Some have scaled their hours back to part time. Others have just walked away altogether. Our workload is more than what it would normally be.”

The stresses and emotional weight of caring for coronavirus patients are not the causes of nurse shortages across the nation, but the widespread resulting serious illness and death exacerbated the deficiency of nurses.

Shelby County Health Department Director Alisa Haushalter said Shelby County hospitals and healthcare facilities, are coping with the shortage like every other place in the country.

“We are feeling the effects of a nurse shortage in Shelby County, just like everyone else,” Haushalter said, during a rising number of hospitalizations in April. “We have never seen a pandemic of this magnitude. So, we’re treading in unfamiliar territory. That’s why we’re working to bring every resource to bear.”

Healthcare researchers predicted as far back as 2009 that a shortage of nurses would accompany the exponential growth in senior populations when the Baby Boomers turned 65, according to the American Nurses Association (ANA).

There are an estimated 3 million nurses presently working. By the year 2030, one million will have retired. To alleviate the effects, one million new nurses should be ready in 2022. That is not happening, according to the ANA.

“We have maintained a consistent number of nursing students at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center,” said Dr. Jamila Smith-Young, a nurse practitioner and assistant professor at UTHSC.

“Some nursing programs are offering free online instruction, but none of the nursing programs in Memphis and Shelby County are participating,” she said.

Faculty shortages in nursing programs also are limiting student capacity each year, according to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN).

Classroom spaces are limited and the competition to get one of those spaces in tremendous. Thousands are turned away because of the limited space.

“There is a lot going on,” said James. “But I am committed to riding this virus out, nurse shortage and all.

“I love the profession, and despite the extreme emotional lows, nursing is worth the effort. Nursing is worth the risk.”