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Sunday, February 25, 2018
HomeMedia EngagementInvisible Nurse Redux

Invisible Nurse Redux

leslie nicollThis post is written by Leslie H. Nicoll, PhD, MBA, RN, FAAN  a passionate nurse, wife, and mother. She lives in Portland, Maine where she owns her own business, Maine Desk LLC. She is the Editor-in-Chief of CIN: Computers, Informatics, Nursing and Editor of Nurse Author & Editor. Dr. Nicoll is an advocate for the poor and vulnerable in our society and lives this mission by working 2 1/2 days per week as the Coordinator at the Portland Community Free Clinic. Dr. Nicoll was very proud to be inducted as a Fellow in the American Academy of Nursing in October 2014. 

Kaci Hickox, the nurse who was quarantined in a tent in New Jersey for four days, has become a household name—sort of. What isn’t as well publicized are her educational credentials and expertise. Nurse Hickox is presented as “just a nurse” and if one is to believe the comments written about her in public discourse (newspapers, Facebook, Twitter) she is the worst kind of nurse: selfish, narcissistic, ambitious, egotistical, and negligent. Definitely not the sort of nurse someone would want at their bedside when they are in extremis, if you are inclined to agree with the opinions that many anonymous writers have shared.

I’ll be honest, I didn’t start paying close attention to Nurse Hickox’s story until she left New Jersey and came home to Fort Kent, Maine. But once her situation became local news (I live in Portland), I couldn’t ignore it. “QUARANTINED NURSE” was the lead headline for the past week.

One thing I noticed, right off the bat, is that all stories about her gave the bare minimum of information—her name and sometimes, her age (33). That’s it. No mention of her employer, education, expertise, or experience. Reporters did talk about her boyfriend, Ted Wilbur, 39, a nursing student at the University of Maine at Fort Kent. It was surreal to feel like I knew more about Ted than I did about Kaci, who really was the person of interest at the heart of this story.

Limited info about Nurse Hickox didn’t stop the online “pitchforks and torches” crowd from attacking her, however. Think of the nastiest thing you can say about someone and multiply it by ten—that will give you a sense of the vitriol that has been posted on the websites of the Portland Press Herald and the Bangor Daily News. I ventured to a Kaci Hickox Facebook page and read more of the same, including this comment: “Bet this fanpage isn’t working out the way you expected it would, bitch!!”

Things reached a head, at least in my head, when I read a series of posts from people claiming to have contacted the Maine Board of Nursing demanding that her license be revoked and finding out that she isn’t even licensed to practice nursing in Maine! This caused even more outrage, with comments suggesting that she is not a “real RN” and that she was “practicing medicine” [sic] in Africa illegally.

So, who is Kaci Hickox, really? It turns out she is extremely well educated and well qualified for the work she is doing: BSN from the University of Texas at Arlington (2002), MPH and MSN from Johns Hopkins University (2011), a diploma in tropical nursing from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Health, plus a two year post-graduate fellowship in applied epidemiology with the CDC. Nurse Hickox is a paid volunteer by Doctors Without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontières, MSF) and under their auspices, has traveled to work in Myanmar, Nigeria, and most recently, Sierra Leone. She has a very definite career path to work with poor and vulnerable populations throughout the world. Interestingly, she was turned down by MSF for a job in 2004 because she didn’t have enough experience. That motivated her pursue her tropical nursing diploma and dual master’s degrees, all while gaining international experience in Indonesia and other countries.

Clearly Nurse Hickox is a smart, assertive, and intelligent woman who knows how to stand up for her rights and fight for what she believes in. But the press seems determined not to show us that side of her—instead, they keep her anonymous and vague. In headlines she is often nameless, to wit:

  • Judge in Maine Eases Restrictions on Nurse (New York Times, October 31, 2014)
  • Unapologetic, Christie Frees Nurse From Ebola Quarantine (New York Times, October 27, 2014)
  • Tested Negative for Ebola, Nurse Criticizes Her Quarantine (New York Times, October 27, 2014)

In videos that I have watched of Gov. Christie (NJ) and Gov. LePage (ME) discussing the situation—Nurse Hickox is never mentioned by name but always referred to as “her” and “she.” Gov. LePage goes on to say that “that woman” has “violated every promise” and that “we can’t trust her—I don’t trust her.”* He has also warned that she might be attacked if she leaves her home, which I heard as a veiled threat and bullying tactic.

I posted a comment in response to a New York Times article on October 31 that detailed some of her education because I was tired of the lack of information about her. So many commenters were assuming that she was undeducated and unprepared for the job and that she had gone to Africa on a lark with an urge to become famous. I wanted to do my little bit to get accurate data into the public record. 

People thanked me for  my post, saying that this information had not been shared before and was not “common knowledge.” Was I truly the first person to investigate Nurse Hickox’s background (which took about two minutes of Googling)? Turns out I wasn’t—there was an article in the New York Times on October 25 with this background, but it was buried on page A24. It was a standalone piece and none of the information contained in that article has been referenced in subsequent articles written about her. I also found alumni articles from Johns Hopkins and the University of Texas at Arlington** but has this material been shared generally? Sadly the answer is no.

So, what is my takeaway on all of this? One—the world out there: the public, reporters, governors and everyone else—see “nurses” as a commodity, one in million, who do not need to be named and identified by education and experience. Knowing this, we need to be vigilant to provide names, degrees, and credentials, for both ourselves and our colleagues. Note that in this post I have explicitly used Nurse Hickox rather than “Kaci” or “Ms. Hickox.” I believe this is a small way to be respectful and also get the fact that she is a nurse right out front.

Two: nursing education is confusing. This, unfortunately is a problem we in the profession have created but for people who aren’t pursuing a degree in nursing, it can be simplified and made clear. Most everyone knows what a bachelor’s degree is, likewise a master’s or PhD. Use those terms. “Kaci Hickox has two master’s degrees from Johns Hopkins.” People will understand that Nurse Hickox must be “wicked smart” (to use a Maine term!) to have accomplished this.

Three: career options in nursing are wide and varied (good for us who are looking to do different things) but again, the public seems to equate nursing with being at the bedside in a staff nurse role. There were many opportunities in the Nurse Hickox story where misconceptions were not corrected: she has a definite career plan, she has the education and expertise to serve in complex public health situations, and she did not go to Africa on a whim.

Fourth: strong, assertive nurses (and women) are not bad people. Nurse Hickox stood up for her rights and was publicly shamed for it. This is not acceptable and we must be vocal and support our colleagues. Interestingly, Monica Lewinsky has recently come forward with a mission to stop cyberbullying and public humiliation, based on her experiences of the past 16 years.*** Cruel, heartless online posting, from people who can hide behind a screen name are abhorrent to me and unfortunately, the incidence seems to be increasing. We must do what we can to stop this practice. Getting on the right side of the Nurse Hickox story seems like a good place to start.

Fifth: modern nursing is not the profession that many envision—docile, subservient nurses dressed in white and working in the hospital. Instead, we are creative, educated, and intelligent men and women who work in settings unimagined a generation ago. Each of us has a responsibility to correct misconceptions about our profession and career and should do this at every opportunity. When asked what I do, I always say that I am a nurse first, then add, “I own my own business,” “I am the editor of a professional journal,” or “I am the coordinator at our local free clinic.”

I was heartened this morning when the headline in the Maine Sunday Telegram did identify Nurse Hickox by name. Of course, she was called “Ebola nurse” in the same headline. Sigh…one step forward, one step back.

Written by: Leslie H. Nicoll, PhD, MBA, RN, FAAN


*Gov. LePage:

Gov. Christie:



Latest comments

  • Thank you for this! It’s the first piece of read on the topic that actually answers many of my questions. I do hope she lines up an interviewer as thorough and forthright as you have been.

  • Reblogged this on INANE – International Academy of Nursing Editors and commented:
    This was posted on the HealthCetera blog–I wanted to share with my INANE colleagues. –LHN

  • Thank you for this piece.

    I enjoy jousting on news stories and although my searches for her were not as rewarding as yours the little bit I did find, and knowing a little about higher education led me to conclude that her credentials were very close to what you list.

    It was also quite obvious how bright she was and that she had no intention of being bullied or bullying anyone.

    It is really disheartening when you realize that 80% of the population wanted to restrict her freedom of movement for 21 days because she is an exemplar of a great nurse, because they were being scared to death by political hacks and reacted irrationally.

    Especially disappointing because most of that 80% will not react to the legitimate concerns about human induced climate change – a situation that poses far more frightening consequences for average citizens than Kaci Hickox would if she were contagious

    I didn’t know she was paid staff of DWB – but I was really curious where she worked – so you answered all the questions I had..

  • Very well said!!! Thank you for posting! I totally agree that nurse should stand up for one another & make the public realize we do know what we could potionaly be getting into, but do it anyway, with the education to protect ourselves & others. Many don’t think of the selfless acts many nurses take to help people in many different ways.

  • Very good article, thank you for posting. It has seemed that nurses have been the scapegoats of the ebola scare. Sadly, people do not take the time to learn, and are quick to point fingers. Nurses have given to others, care for others, at their own risk and those who offer no aide are criticizing those who do. It is disheartening.

  • Thank you for this! Kaci Kickox not only stood up for her own rights, but also for the rights of others coming back from ebola areas. She deserves all the appreciation and respect that we can give her. Melissa Boling, RN, BSN, MDiv

  • Thank you so much !!!!!! God Bless her and all the brave hero’s.

  • Thank you. From the beginning I believed Nurse Hickox based her decisions on science. And that was before I read this about her education/experience. This is great confirmation.

  • Leslie, thank you for posting. I had first heard of Kaci Hickox credentials from a physician. Sadly, I hadn’t bothered to find out for myself. I think for many nurses, myself included, we often think of ourselves as “nurses” vs. “NURSES” and so does the public. This is a strong reminder to consider exactly what it is we do every day as nurses and just how important that work is. Take Pride!
    Thank you Kaci Hickox for your example of strength, courage and integrity.

  • Thanks for this great piece Leslie. I was also struck by how anonymous Nurse Hickox was in the media but I never did the investigative work you did to find the answers.

    I’m appalled at the way nurses are being attacked on so many fronts with respect to this outbreak. It’s absolutely frightening that the general public cannot sort the lies, the purposeful misdirection of the media and politicians, to get to the basic facts about a story. There are so many people trying to help with the Ebola outbreak and they face such fear, ignorance, and malicious behavior when they return home. People like Nurse Hickox and the other 2 nurses who became infected while caring for Mr. Duncan are smart, caring, and committed and they don’t deserve this kind of treatment from Americans.

  • It’s amazing when there’s a contest between perceptions and facts. I guess perceptions usually beat facts, which reflects also a poor understanding of science in this case. It’s scary how many people quickly choose to believe that their perceptions are “more true” than any nuggets of truth conveyed by the facts.

    I’m glad that you posted about what you could find out about Nurse Kaci Hickox. When I first read about her stand against the quarantine, I figured that she’d been in the thick of the Ebola battle and would know her own health situation best.

  • Well done, Leslie. ~Michelle Rudgers, RN