A Free Lunch Doesn’t Exist: How I Became an ONS Health Policy Advocate

April 20, 2021

By Colleen Keegan-O’Brien, RN, CBCN®

For a long time, like so many other nurses, I thought of myself as the “regular kind” of advocate for my patients, speaking out for their needs on an individual basis at the institutional level while supporting them as they navigate a cancer diagnosis. But I’ve more recently discovered an even more empowering role: I’m now a health policy advocate.

thought I’d sit through it for the free lunch, but I left with so much more than a full stomach. I found my new passion, and it was health policy and advocacy

How I Became an “Accidental Advocate”

In spring 2015, our local U.S. representative, Carolyn McCarthy (D-NY), also an RN, announced that she would not be running for reelection because of a lung cancer diagnosis. ONS’s Health Policy Director Alec Stone, MA, MPA, helped us celebrate her nearly 10 years of service to the nation as a congressional representative at one of our Long Island Queens ONS Chapter meetings. 

She shared her background during that chapter meeting, and her story spoke to me. As a New York City public school nurse, McCarthy had no intention of running for public office until her family was torn apart by gun violence. She demanded action, so, like me, she became an accidental advocate. McCarthy’s understanding and commitment as a nurse enabled her to connect with constituents and fellow members of U.S. Congress on public health issues.

Later that year our chapter invited Stone back to discuss the ONS Center for Advocacy and Health Policy at our December meeting. I was intrigued but still not completely sold on how nurses have a place in advocacy, but a few months later at the 2016 ONS Congress™ in San Antonio, TX, I stumbled into Stone’s workshop presentation about advocacy. I thought I’d sit through it for the free lunch, but I left with so much more than a full stomach. I was inspired by the program and the speakers. I found my new passion, and it was health policy and advocacy.

Getting Right to Work

In May 2016, I boarded the 6 a.m. Amtrak train from New York City to Washington, DC, with five of my fellow ONS chapter members. On arrival we were greeted warmly, Washington style, with handshakes and smiles all around. We made appointments with our local representatives and staff from Senator Chuck Schumer’s (D-NY) office. I felt a little overwhelmed at first, but with the support of ONS health policy staff, we become pros after the first appointment.

Stone also gave us a tour of the town, and it was breathtaking. We walked the hallways of the U.S. Senate and U.S. House of Representatives and crossed paths with so many high-profile elected officials. The most impactful experience for me was witnessing how much the congressional staff valued our stories and experiences. Now our perspectives as nurses are shared on the floor when healthcare legislation or funding comes up for a vote. Imagine that!

Later that year, I joined more than 100 ONS members for the first-ever ONS Capitol Hill Days. The now-annual two-day event is a chance to mingle with colleagues and learn how nurses’ voices matter in advocacy. In 2020 the event was virtual, but nearly 200 nurses joined.  

Two years ago, we hosted our first New York Advocacy Day for all ONS chapters based in our area. So many nurses attended, learned how to raise their voice, and left inspired, and now the city is crawling with health policy advocates.

Today’s COVID-19 cornonavirus healthcare crisis requires even more outreach and creative approaches. I focus on local advocacy for my patients and profession. My fellow chapter members and I periodically reach out to and meet with our elected official and offer information on legislation that ONS supports. We also serve as an expert resource on cancer care. Each year my ONS chapter dedicates our December meeting to health policy and advocacy.

Although I see myself as an “accidental advocate” because I was motivated by a free lunch, I believe that Rep. McCarthy is more deserving of that title. She took a personal tragedy and turned it into a career of advocating for gun safety, child healthcare coverage, disability education funding, stem cell research, age discrimination, and so many other health priorities.

She is testament to why nurses belong in advocacy. We have the power and perspective to demand safe staffing ratios, address the nurse shortage, and adjust academic requirements for the profession. We can be advocates and champions for our patients beyond the bedside and address systematic concerns like access to care and financial toxicity.

Nurse advocacy doesn’t have to resemble my experience or Rep. McCarthy’s. You can get involved in a plethora of ways, and ONS will support you however you need. My experiences, in Washington, DC, and in my own neighborhood, have taught me that advocacy is just what nurses do, and we do it well.


Copyright © 2021 by the Oncology Nursing Society. User has permission to print one copy for personal or unit-based educational use. Contact pubpermissions@ons.org for quantity reprints.