Nurses Pay Tribute to Seminal Leader, Former CNA President Kay McVay, RN on Her Passing
“A champion of nurses with an ironclad sense of justice"
The California Nurses Association and National Nurses United are paying tribute this week to the life and legacy of one of its foremost leaders Kay McVay, RN, the president emeritus of CNA who died Saturday at age 84 after a lengthy illness.
Various CNA leaders and staff are remembering her as a transformational nurse leader and activist, a passionate and forceful champion of working nurses, healthcare, social, and economic reform, and filled, as one put it, with an “ironclad sense of justice.”
“A great woman has now passed,” said RoseAnn DeMoro, CNA and NNU Executive Director who worked closely with McVay for decades. “I loved Kay, she was such a profound figure in history and in building this organization. She has been a warrior in changing the world of nursing and has a lasting impact on each of us in our work and as potential patients, more than anyone might imagine.”
McVay was an activist and working nurse leader in CNA for decades, including in the dramatic change in the organization in 1992-1993 when working nurses took control of the organization.
McVay then served in a series of CNA leadership roles, culminating as CNA President from 1994 to 2003, including the period in which CNA won the nation’s first law requiring limits on how many patients could be assigned to RNs to ensure safer hospital care.
“A true warrior like Kay never leaves us,” said San Francisco RN Jane Sandoval. “She leaves a little bit behind for us as we follow her legacy, donning her shield of armor fighting for justice in her honor.”
“She was my friend, my mentor. She inspired so many nurses to activism and her value as a leader cannot be overstated,” said CNA Co-President Deborah Burger, RN a close associate of McVay for many years.
Kay McVay was born in 1934, sharing a January 15 birthdate with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and grew up poor in a low-income Los Angeles neighborhood, recalling spending a lot of time sick in a Los Angeles hospital. “I was so inspired by the nurses, they are why I wanted to become a nurse,” she later recalled. “They were people who really cared. It didn’t matter who you are, what you are.”
But McVay also recalled how nurses were treated before CNA gained the power and influence it has today. “We were being told to stay and work overtime or come in and work whether you had obligations at home or not. And if you didn’t stay or come in, you could be fired.”
“When I was in nursing, and RNs really weren’t organized, workers in all the hospital support jobs were paid more than the RNs because they were men. It took a while for nurses and women overall.”
McVay also credited DeMoro’s leadership for helping CNA members win the best contracts for nurses in the U.S., as well as landmark gains with the active role of McVay and other CNA leaders.
In her early days in nursing in the 1950s, McVay recalled how different health care was from the profit focused corporations of today; “if somebody was brought into the ER, nobody ever talked to the patient about the insurance, what it covered, and we need to know this and that before we can start treatment. You’d simply be cared for. Right then and there. No questions.”
Part of her activism was always fueled her outrage at how corporate healthcare transformed care for patients. “Healthcare should be a right, not a privilege. It’s like having a real public school system,” McVay later said. “The idea in the U.S. that if you can’t pay for it, then you don’t deserve to have it. That’s not my philosophy. Nurses understand that, and we can help change it.”
“She was a fierce fighter and her death will not be in vain,” said Sacramento RN Cathy Kennedy. “We will get MediCare for All,”
“A beloved activist and mentor, a life well lived fighting for social justice,” said San Luis Obispo RN Sherri Stoddard.
“Her legacy will forever live on. I remember sitting down in the streets of Chicago protesting” a court ruling that threated to take away union rights for nurses,” said Apple Valley, CA RN Carol Koelle. “I sat right next to Kay and said if she is willing to be arrested for this so am I.”
“Kay was a true hero to me.,” said Sacramento RN Diane McClure. “I remember vividly the last conversation I had with her. She had just fallen and was all banged up and bruised but she showed up to a picket line in full red anyhow. I will never forget that day and how much she has inspired me over the years.”
“Kay always went out of her way to embrace, and involve new members and staff, no matter the setting.,” said Bonnie Castillo, RN, CNA associate executive director. “She genuinely understood her role in building this union and did it with passion, and commitment.”
“It was reassuring to know that she was always there for advice and guidance,” said Bakersfield RN Sandy Reding. “The rich history and lessons learned are a tribute to a spectacular leader. Our world is a better place because of Kay's vision.”
“Another Angel has found their wings. I was blessed to have known her and she is in my heart for ever,” said recently retired Hayward RN Robert Marth.