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The Vital Role of Nurses in Addressing Climate Change

Posted by Contributor

Thu, Sep 28, 2017 @ 01:56 PM

homepage_6_orig-1.jpgThis article was written by the MODERN NURSE at

Nurses are the largest group of healthcare providers and you have a lot of power. You can help make changes that affect your patients and the environment. With climate change on the rise, you can create awareness of areas within your place of employment that need improvement. The reduction of strong chemicals, plastics and paper items can have a strong impact. Check out this interview regarding the Nursing community and how you can affect environmental change.

Public awareness and interest in all things “green” has created a need for nurses to understand environmental issues and their relationship to health with credible, evidence-based information, as well as provide leadership in making the necessary changes in our policies and practices. Cara Cook, MS, RN, AHN-BC, is working to increase awareness and promote action that addresses climate change as a health imperative among the nursing community through her role as climate change program coordinator for the Alliance of Nurses for Healthy Environments (ANHE). We spoke with Cara, who was recently chosen as a 2017 Johnson & Johnson Global Citizen Young Health Leader, about the connection between environmentalism and nursing, and how her background as a nurse has prepared her for advocacy work.

Nursing Notes (NN): How long have you been a nurse, and what significant changes have you seen in the nursing profession since you began practicing?

Cara: I’ve been a nurse for a little more than eight years, and one major change I’ve noticed is the nursing contribution to environmentally safe practice environments. Nurses have long been advocates for safe nurse-patient ratios and preventing adverse health outcomes, such as falls or healthcare-associated infections. In addition to those important patient safety issues, nurses are realizing the connection between the environments in which we live, work, and play, and how this influences health outcomes.

Nurses are at the forefront of change within practicing settings through advocating for use of safer chemicals in hospital cleaning supplies, by forming green teams or sustainability departments that focus on reducing an institution’s environmental impact, or from working in communities to ensure patients have access to healthy foods and safe areas to exercise.

NN: Why is understanding climate change important for nurses?

Cara: Climate change is one of the biggest global health threats we face today. Nurses are on the frontlines of communities caring for patients impacted by climate change, so it’s important for nurses to understand the connection between climate change and health, and how the health sector can respond.

As the most trusted profession and largest group of healthcare providers, nurses are urgently needed to lead the fight against climate change. Being aware of and advocating for solutions to limit and respond to climate change is within our scope of nursing practice, with our own practice standards stating the “registered nurse practices in an environmentally safe and healthy manner.”

NN: How did you get involved with ANHE?

Cara: As part of my master’s program, I was required to complete a certain number of hours for two semesters with a public health organization. Since my area of interest is in environmental health, I was paired to work with Katie Huffling, the executive director at ANHE. At that time, my work with ANHE involved federal reform of toxic chemical policy and participation in campaigns at the state level focused on advancing health-protective regulations for hydraulic fracturing and antibiotic use in animal agriculture. About a year after I graduated, ANHE received funding to expand their climate change and health program, and I came on board as a full-time employee.

NN: How has your background as a nurse prepared you for your current position?

Cara: Nurses feel very comfortable advocating on behalf of patients in healthcare facilities, so all it took was learning how to translate that skill into the policy arena. Another core part of nursing that has prepared me for my current position is the focus on evidence-based practice. Environmental health or climate change work is similar in that you need to look at the evidence in order to understand the issues and potential solutions, and how to adequately communicate this to the public or legislators.

Also, I think being able to work through the unanticipated and creatively solve problems when everything seems to be going wrong, as so often is needed in bedside nursing, has helped with working through some of the challenges in environmental health work.

NN: What do your day-to-day responsibilities look like as a climate change program coordinator?

Cara: My role includes spearheading ANHE’s climate change and health program that aims to increase awareness among the nursing profession on the health impacts posed by climate change. Through this program, I work to engage individual nurses and nursing organizations in prioritizing climate change as a health imperative, emphasizing the urgency for nursing action in frontline communities and in an advocacy role. One of our current initiatives is working to form a Nursing Collaborative on Climate Change and Health, which is an effort to unite national nursing organizations around climate change, with the goals of bringing health to the forefront of discussion and policy-making and ensuring a coordinated nursing response across specialties.

Since our organization has a small staff, I also help with our other environmental health initiatives, currently focused on water and health, air pollution, energy and health, safer chemicals, and food sustainability. ANHE also provides advocacy trainings, which I help organize and run, for nurses to learn how to be successful advocates on environmental health issues.

NN: What is your favorite part of your job?

Cara: My favorite part of my job is working with and meeting such amazing nurses. Working for ANHE allows me to meet and work with a variety of nurses from different specialties and learn more about the work being done to address environmental health issues. I lead ANHE’s Global Nurses Climate Change Committee, which provides an opportunity to connect with nurses across the world and learn about what is being done in other countries around climate change.

Another perk of my job is being able to talk with nurses about climate and health, and help them learn how they can move action forward in their own practice. It’s rewarding to inspire nurses to take action and to see how passionate they become when they learn about how climate change is creating significant challenges for health.

NN: What is the most challenging part of your job?

Cara: With environmental health work, and even policy work in general, it can be challenging not to get discouraged. Working with such a strong group of nurses helps to keep the momentum going when efforts can be disheartening.

NN: Looking forward, what advancements/changes do you expect to see in nursing?

Cara: Our healthcare system is in a fragile state, and there must be some dramatic changes for the system to be sustainable. We are already seeing a shift to prevention and building up the primary care system, with increasing attention to how environmental factors can affect health, and I think nurses and nurse practitioners will have a major role in this shift as our profession branches off into different avenues of care outside of traditional settings.

NN: Is there anything else that you would like to add?

Cara: Many of these environmental health issues, including climate change, can seem so daunting, almost as if there is nothing that can be done to reverse the course of action. However, there are solutions to address these complex issues and we are at a critical point where, as nurses we can make a big impact on the health of our patients and communities. Nurses are so important to moving the health message forward on climate change and, collectively, we have incredible power to drive change.

To learn more about environmental health and how climate change impacts health, or to join ANHE, visit For more information on Health Policy Nursing, visit To learn more about the Johnson & Johnson partnership with Global Citizen, visit

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Topics: environment, recycling, waste, Climate Change, plastic waste

Artist Shirks Fame To Invent Tools That Allow Kids With Disabilities To Paint

Posted by Contributor

Fri, Jul 24, 2015 @ 12:08 PM

Eleanor Goldberg and Marissa Garey 


Not many people have instilled a social change like Dwayne Szot, an artist from northern Wisconsin. Dwayne Szot is far from a typical artist—he is an innovative artist who creates work that allows kids with disabilities to complete simple childhood activities. Despite the situation they’ve been given, Szot’s work enables kids with disabilities to paint, draw, blow bubbles, and more. For a kid like Madison, an 8 year old diagnosed with spinal muscular atrophy, Szot’s work has proven to be life changing. Inspired by his foster siblings with disabilities, Szot strives to help kids experience and enjoy life to it’s fullest all over the world.

When Madison was first diagnosed with spinal muscular atrophy, her doctor didn’t know a whole lot about the genetic condition. She flat-out told Madison’s fearful parents that their baby wouldn’t make it to her 2nd birthday.

“That was pretty tough,” Jennifer Miller-Smith, Madison’s mom, told The Huffington Post.

Seven years later, while the second-grader relies on a wheelchair and faces the disease’s degenerative effects, Madison is “thriving,” her mom proudly shared. A lot of that is thanks to Dwayne Szot, an artist who has committed his career to inventing tools that enable kids with disabilities to paint, draw, blow bubbles –- pretty much do anything any typical child gets to do.

Before Madison met Szot, an innovator based out of a small fishing town in northern Wisconsin, the 8-year-old often felt frustrated and helpless. While she wanted more than anything to play with her friends, she was often relegated to the sidelines due to her condition.

SMA causes the body’s muscles to weaken over time, making it impossible to perform such simple tasks as flipping a switch. Those with SMA type 2, like Madison, will never be able to walk or stand up, according to the U.S. Library of National Medicine.

But when Madison met Szot at an SMA conference in Los Angeles two years ago, her world opened up in a way she had always hoped, but wasn’t sure was possible.

Since the late 1980s, when Szot unveiled the first edition of his painting wheelchair, the artist has spent his days building upon his current inventions and developing new ways to engage with kids with limited physical ability.

“What I do in the studio is create a means for a full completeness of experiences,” Szot told HuffPost at an event in west Miami in April. “It’s not just about mark making. It’s about that opportunity to experience and enjoy life to it’s fullest.”

Szot knew from the time he was a child in the foster system in the Midwest that he would pursue a career in art. But it was one that wouldn’t involve fame or fortune.

“I knew growing up that I was never going to be this kind of art guy who put paintings on the wall in a museum,” Szot said. “I wanted to be the kind of art guy who made something that was going to create social change –- that was going to make a difference. And there’d be a usefulness to what I did as an artist.”

Szot was particularly inspired by his foster siblings with disabilities, and how they adapted together to make their everyday routine work.

He recalled how he and the other kids were always late for the school bus. To help his sister with cerebral palsy get there just a bit faster, he started dragging her along in a wagon.

It was those childhood experiences, and simple adaptations, that inform his work today.

Szot, for example, first developed his art roller with a National Endowment for the Arts grant nearly 30 years ago. It involves attaching PVC pipe and a print plate to the base of a walker or a wheelchair. After it’s filled up with paint, the user just rolls and can create a massive mural.

He uses similar technology for the Walk Chalk and Roll, which allows kids in wheelchairs to draw on the sidewalk with chalk.

“It taught our kids that they can do sidewalk chalk and they can create these magnificent paintings and such, with just a little bit of adaptability,” Miller-Smith said of Szot’s tools. “Now that we connected something to [Madison’s] wheelchair -- now she can do it.”

When he’s not toiling in his workshop, Szot takes his tools on the road, both around the U.S. and abroad, to show children with a range of conditions that they no longer need to live their lives as bystanders.

Szot’s inventions have taken him as far as Saudi Arabia and Mexico. But this year, his workshops are all based in the U.S. He’s making stops in Detroit, Chicago and Portland, Maine, among other major cities.


This past spring, Szot set up shop at the Patricia & Phillip Frost Art Museum at Florida International University, which allowed Madison to reconnect with the man who changed her life on her own turf.

Together with Miami-Dade Department of Cultural Affairs, the Children's Trust and All Kids Included, the event invited 200 kids, both those with disabilities and without, to play together using Szot’s tools.


For parents, participants and museum staff seeing Szot’s work for the first time, the experience was eye-opening.

“I use the word ‘genius’ very rarely,” Jordana Pomeroy, the museum’s director, told HuffPost. “And I think it’s very appropriate in describing the work that [Szot] does with kids with physical challenges.”

Newly diagnosed families that are just beginning to grasp what their children’s conditions mean for the long term felt particularly hopeful.

Kaden, 14 months old, was diagnosed with SMA about half a year ago. He’s never crawled or rolled over and will never walk.

Just playing with a toy is a challenge for him since he has to use nearly every muscle to prop himself up and keep himself from falling over, his mom, Katie Myers, said.

But after watching Kaden spend the afternoon painting murals and playing with an adaptive kite, Myers said she felt reassured about her baby’s prospects.

“Being able to see how much he loves life and loves the world, and wants to be a part of the world -- it changes our whole perspective," Myers said. "Despite the situation he’s been given, the world is his.”


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