COVID-19 Courage Award


Image by Ellyn E. Matthews, PhD, RN, AOCNS, CBSM, FAAN*

The American Academy of Nursing (Academy) is pleased to announce the launch of the COVID-19 Courage Awards to honor the incredible contributions nurses have made to save lives, advance health equity, and protect communities during the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. These awards, made possible through the generous support of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), include $8,000 in funding for professional development to be given to a nurse, at any stage of their career, in each of four categories: Policy, Leadership, Innovation, and Science. Read the press release announcing the award winners.


Ukamaka Oruche.jpegWhat is courage? To Ukamaka Oruche, PhD, RN, PMHCNS-BC, FAAN, “Courage is identifying a need or a gap and stepping up to fill that need using your talents and skills.”

When the pandemic reached Dr. Oruche’s community, the associate professor and director of global programs at Indiana University School of Nursing displayed courage in just that way. She stepped up to ensure those caring for her patient population—children with mental and behavioral health needs—had the information they needed to keep themselves and the children well and avert disruptions in their care.

The Academy honored Dr. Oruche with the COVID-19 Courage Award in Innovation for the creativity and ingenuity she exhibited in developing innovative educational materials and activating her network of colleagues, public health leaders, and media contacts to disseminate critical information to the public. Her tips for managing children with behavioral challenges and her self-care guides for parents, frontline nurses, and underserved communities were strategically disseminated via publicly accessible online platforms. Her efforts caught the attention of the Indiana Family and Social Services Administration, which collaborated with her to create a video with tips on parenting children with behavioral challenges for the Be Well Indiana website.

State officials also asked her to take part in one of the governor’s virtual press conferences on COVID-19. “They were mindful of reaching low resourced communities,” says Dr. Oruche, the very people whose limited access to health information was her uppermost concern. She also devoted her energy to advocating for the extension of federal waivers put in place during the pandemic to allow patients to access care via telehealth. By continuing to deliver care using this modality after the public health emergency has passed, Dr. Oruche believes, “We can learn more about what works and what doesn't work in order to inform policy decisions.”

Dr. Oruche would like to see more nurses exert their influence in the policy arena. “We need to be more and more at the table in terms of policy,” she says, “and by the way, become legislators ourselves.”


Marissa_Pietrolungo.jpegWhat is courage? To Marissa Pietrolungo, BSN, MSN, CCRN, cardiac intensive care nurse at Temple University Hospital in Philadelphia, “Courage is having the willingness to do something that no one else wants to do. It's about knowing the risks and doing it anyways.”

In March 2020, as the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic peaked, Marissa volunteered for her hospital’s COVID-19 unit. She says she felt a strong desire to step-up and “answer the call,” and while most of her nursing colleagues remained fearful of the virus, her example persuaded many of them to do the same.

The work itself was grueling. “These patients were so sick that I was constantly spinning, like running around from bed to bed to bed,” she says. “And then the patients are looking at each other, some with it, some not with it.” In one case, she was with a patient while they both watched another patient die. “You'd never want that to happen at all,” she says, adding she would find it hard to believe such things could occur if she hadn’t gone through them herself.

Marissa frequently cared for as many as three acutely ill patients simultaneously and assisted other nurses whenever she could. Many of her coworkers told COVID ICU Nurse Manager Brian Gardner, BSN, RN, SCRN, that their days were a little better when Marissa worked with them. “Marissa’s heart is just as large as her vast knowledge of nursing,” he says.

Her compassionate leadership was most evident in her continued commitment to providing patient- and family-centered care despite the strains of working in a high-risk environment. She made sure patients were included in decision-making about their care, provided oral hygiene to patients on ventilators, and regularly reached out to reassure families.

She vividly remembers the three days she spent caring for a patient with lung disease who refused to be placed on a ventilator. “She was basically waiting to die,” Pietrolungo says, yet the patient kept telling her family she was fine. Pietrolungo called the family to make sure they understood the importance of the woman’s decision. Then she set up a video call so the woman and her family could be together during her final hours.

“Very seldomly do we have an opportunity to show the world exactly what we do,” Pietrolungo says, reflecting on her profession’s visibility during the pandemic. “We were everything for that patient.”


Marissa_Pietrolungo.jpegWhat is courage? To Doris Grinspun, PhD, RN, FAAN, LLD(hon), Dr(hc), O.ONT., “Courage is the capacity to speak out when one must to move change, and courage is the capacity to not only say it once but persist in saying it until change is achieved.”

Grinspun is the chief executive officer of the Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario (RNAO), the professional association representing RNs, nurse practitioners, and nursing students in the province of Ontario. Her response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been both timely and forward looking. In early 2020 she engaged a small group within her organization to work with her on pandemic response while directing the rest of her staff to remain focused on the organization’s mission: advocating for healthy public policy, promoting excellence in nursing practice through RNAO’s Nursing Best Practice Guidelines, and empowering nurses to engage in these efforts.

In Canada, the pandemic hit hardest in the long-term care sector, where Grinspun says roughly 80% of COVID-19 deaths occurred. When facilities shut their doors to visitors because of insufficient personal protective equipment, she says residents felt abandoned. In response, RNAO led the charge to reopen nursing homes to family members, who often are essential caregivers for their loved ones. “We succeeded to convince the premier of this province,” says Grinspun, and set a precedent that the leaders of other provinces have followed.

At its core, Grinspun says, her courage springs from her desire to see a better world than the one she inherited—a world where excellence in clinical practice, research, administration, education, and policy are the norm. In her view, policy is the most effective way to achieve this goal. With close to 400 media interviews since the start of COVID-19, she has earned a reputation as a fierce advocate for vulnerable populations and the most outspoken health care leader in Canada. She urges every single nurse to muster the courage “to speak out and speak loud…Now is the time, colleagues,” she insists. “We must get on with it, and we must never give up on it.”


Marissa_Pietrolungo.jpegWhat is courage? To Jason Farley, PhD, MPH, ANP-BC, FAAN, FAANP, AACRN, “Courage is the willingness to step up, even in the midst of complete lack of facts, lack of data, lack of a full understanding of what you're actually stepping up for.”

As an infectious disease epidemiologist, researcher, and professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Nursing, Dr. Farley was better prepared than many to face such uncertainty and step forward in response to COVID-19, but his willingness to do so (in the words of his dean, Patricia Davidson, PhD, MEd, RN, FAAN) with “courage, integrity, and commitment” set him apart.

When supply challenges surfaced with personal protective equipment (PPE), Dr. Farley collaborated with colleagues from Johns Hopkins Whiting School of Engineering and the University of Maryland to create a testing booth to reduce clinician and patient exposure to the disease—an innovation that allowed for testing at community sites. Dr. Farley also took on new research, as co-recipient of a Rapid Acceleration of Diagnostics for COVID-19 (RADxUp) grant and leader of the JHU Coronavirus Prevention Network, both funded by the National Institutes of Health. For these and other remarkable accomplishments in 2020, the Academy chose Dr. Farley to receive the COVID-19 Courage Award in Science.

“Nurse academics often find themselves caught up in the volunteerism level of the response while our colleagues in other disciplines take more of the scientific approach to the response,” says Dr. Farley. “To me it's not a choice of one or the other. It's essential to do both.”

He notes that COVID-19 health outcomes have been driven as much by nursing practices such as proning, infection control behaviors, and whether or not people can access testing and therapeutics. “To me, each of those areas are perfectly aligned with inquiry by the nurse scientist,” he says.

When not engaged in activities related to COVID-19, Dr. Farley directs the REACH Initiative serving Baltimore City residents living with and at risk for HIV. He also serves as clinical core co-director at the university’s Center for AIDS Research and as a nurse practitioner in the Division of Infectious Diseases at the Johns Hopkins Schools of Nursing and Medicine. As a nurse epidemiologist and scientist, he was well prepared to respond to the current pandemic. Dr. Farley agrees, saying, “This is the moment I have trained my whole life for.” 

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*Image by Ellyn E. Matthews, Academy Fellow, submitted through the American Academy of Nursing’s Inspiring Hope through Nursing Art initiative. The image used for the COVID-19 Courage Award was generated based off an original 12x16 watercolor painting, titled “You Got This,” by Dr. Matthews that was inspired by a photograph taken by Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Chicago Sun-Times (permission granted for use).