May 12 is Florence Nightingale’s birthday, so this is a good time of year to join the national and international movements to recognize the contributions and sacrifices nurses make in their profession of care and service. Even if you’re not a nurse yourself, consider marking the day by thanking a nurse in your life.
They deserve our recognition because nursing is a profession built on selflessness — in fact, nurses make a living out of our calling to love one another. As a nursing instructor, I try to prepare my students for the ways the job calls us to care for others in small, hidden ways. Taking a moment to acknowledge these public servants might actually help us see how we might love others better, too.
If you have no personal relationship with nurses, you surely have had contact with them over the years. There were the nurses who assisted your mom as you were being born; the ones who took your blood pressure and temperature at your childhood check-ups (and then probably gave you a shot — sorry, had to be done); and perhaps there was one in particular along the way whose bedside presence was especially memorable. You might not recall his name, but you still remember his smile as you were coming out of anesthetic fog following surgery, his blithe banter as he emptied your emesis basin, or his tenderness as you wrestled with bad news from a doc.
Those are the kinds of images we associate with Nightingale herself, the 19th century architect of modern nursing. Called the Lady of the Lamp, she is remembered for her nighttime rounds at an army hospital during the Crimean War, tending to the wounded, encouraging them, listening to them. She also introduced innovative techniques that elevated nursing from an ad hoc undertaking to a respectable, scientific occupation. Nightingale insisted on proper hygiene, fresh air, and adequate nutrition for her patients, and her interventions drastically cut the mortality rate among injured soldiers.
But all this talk of science and technique might suggest that nursing is merely an extension of what doctors do — an impression that’s reinforced by modern depictions of our craft. If you watch Grey’s Anatomy or other hospital dramas, you might get the idea that healthcare — and nursing in particular — is largely about saving people’s lives: extraordinary measures to fight disease; rushing patients down hallways on gurneys; performing chest compressions to get stopped hearts beating again. You know, cool stuff like that.
I like to emphasize for my students that, eventually, everybody dies of something, and if we’re only about heroic measures and saving lives, then we’re bound for failure.
Instead, most of nursing occurs much farther offstage and away from the spotlight. To outsiders, it’ll seem almost pedestrian and utterly ordinary. Sure, there are times when we do jump in with lifesaving interventions, but you’ll get a better glimpse of nursing’s essence once those interventions achieve their objective.
“Our work begins afterward, when the poor soul comes to himself, sick, faint, and wandering,” writes Little Women author Louisa May Alcott, who served as a Civil War nurse. “Then we must sooth and sustain, tend and watch; preaching and practicing patience, till sleep and time have restored courage and self-control.”
Nursing, in my mind, is much more about such mundane matters than flashy heroics. It’s about the immunizations and emesis basins as much as the high-adrenaline exploits — if not more so. I know from experience that if you ask a nursing student why he or she wants to become a nurse, they’ll invariably give you some variation on, “I want to care for people.” Frankly, that care stands at the heart of what keeps us in the biz, day in and day out and around the clock. And we do it even if we’re not remembered by name, or at all.
In this, we’re less like luminaries than servants — Jesus’ example of washing the feet of his disciples comes to mind. “I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do,” he said.
What’s more, nurses share of themselves in service with an eye toward joy, even in the most desperate circumstances. A good example is Alcott herself. Her time as a Civil War nurse would’ve been filled with horrors and challenges unimaginable today. Nonetheless, she testifies that she was committed to “look well after the cheerfulnesses of life, and let the dismals shift for themselves; believing with good Sir Thomas More that it is wise to ‘be merrie in God.’”
In other words, she would’ve been the smiling nurse from your past whose selfless actions gave you comfort and whose very presence was solace. So, celebrate that encounter today, even if you can’t come up with his name, and give thanks. The world is an easier place to inhabit for nurses being in it.