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A Wise Woman Once said….A Celebration of Florence Nightingale’s Legacy May 12, 2010

Posted by mariemanthey in Academia, History, Leadership, Professional Practice, Values.
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A wise woman once said: “It is fundamental that the hospital shall do nothing to harm the sick.” This woman then went on to create what has become in modern times, the profession of nursing. She instinctively recognized the eternal truth of the phrase “To whom it is given”, to care for the sick and to found the profession of nursing – based on the equal strengths of knowledge and compassion.

I often think about Florence Nightingale’s legacy using the metaphor of a seed. Within every seed are all the qualities and characteristics of the entity that is to grow from the seed. Not all qualities and characteristics are nourished and grow equally. Some grow quickly, others much more slowly. And so it is with Nightingale and nursing. In celebrating her life, and its meaning for nursing and for the world, the qualities and characteristics she embedded in the profession deserve to be recognized, both those that flourished and are strong today, as well as those that have yet to be developed. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Florence_Nightingale

Some of Nightingale’s strongest qualities are that she was an intellectual, environmentalist, statistician, politician, administrator, spiritualist and hands-on caregiver.

Nigthtingale’s intense spirituality is made evident in a book of her letters written to her family while on a three month tour of Egypt and Greece. She was not so much religious as she was spiritual. I was amazed to learn that she studied every religion, including paganism, since she believed any one of them could bring her closer to God. Her passion to serve the sick is a direct result of her spiritual life.

As is well-known, Florence was a lady of highest standing is society. Her parents were wealthy. In fact, after their wedding, they embarked on a six year honeymoon tour of the world. They named their first child, Florence, after the city she was born in and their second, Parthenon, for the major tour feature of the city where she was born.

Florence knew early in her life that the role society assigned to her was not acceptable to her. She was highly intellectual; a quality that resulted in her being taught by her father. She learned subjects not generally understood by women like geography, mathematics, politics and world history. She rebelled against her family’s and society’s beliefs about the role of women in the upper classes and eventually, with enormous struggle and cost, prepared herself as a nurse. She believed in the depth of her soul that this was God’s will for her.

Her skill as an administrator became evident when she was commissioned to nurse English soldiers in Scutari. She understood the value of resources and how to use them to accomplish a goal. When the Army Surgeons refused to allow the nurses access to the hospitalized soldiers, Florence withheld access to the ship full of supplies. She managed to withhold access to them until the surgeons relented and invited the nurses to come and work in the hospital. So not only was she an administrator, but also a politician. She analyzed and used the “pockets of power” in any situation. Today, nurses have well-developed administrative skills, but we still need to sharpen our political acumen.

Another interesting strength of Nightingale is in her use of statistics. In contrast to modern nurses, Nightingale loved the field of statistics and was quite creative in her use of numbers. She actually reformed the British military health care system by demonstrating statistically a dramatic drop in mortality rates when soldiers were in the care of nurses. During the war that statistic went from a 43% death rate to a 2% death rate due to the incredible reforms in hospital care she pioneered. Speaking of pioneering, the field of statistics considers Florence one of their pioneers as she created the first pie chart that clearly shows metric relationships among various segments of a whole. Several years ago the magazine, Science News, ran a feature on Florence as their pioneer, showing her on the cover with a replica of one of her pie charts. http://www.sciencenews.org/index/generic/activity/view/id/38937/title/Florence_Nightingale_The_passionate_statistician

Nightingale’s life reflects a wholesome integration of intellect and spirit. She was brilliant; considered a mystic – one who has received a revelation directly from God. As I read Barbara Dossey’s book about Florence’s life, I was amazed to learn she wrote and spoke in five languages. She even made notes in her bible in five languages, which meant she could actually think in different languages. http://www.dosseydossey.com/barbara/book.html

She walked among the pallets in the rat and vermin infested hospitals for the lowly foot soldiers, whispering words of encouragement and hope to the suffering soldiers. She embodied the twin values of knowledge and compassion. The lowly soldiers nicknamed her “The Lady with the Lamp.” They told their parents and families about this remarkable woman. Word quickly spread throughout England that “a high-class lady” was saving lives in Crimea. Grateful parents began donating small sums of money to what eventually became the Nightingale Fund. Florence used this money to start the first modern school of nursing at St. Thomas Hospital. Therefore the profession of nursing as we know it today was funded, not by the health care system, but from outside sources.

One of the criteria used to differentiate a profession from an occupation is that a profession is based on a system of values so fundamental to the nature of mankind that those who hold them can be said to profess to them, as in witnessing. Thanks to the seeds planted by Nightingale, nursing has just such a system of values.

Deeply embedded in the profession of nursing is the belief that of all the forms of human interaction, that of one human being helping another is of high value. Such a simple concept, and yet so rare in modern society. We live in a world today that values competitiveness over cooperation; winners are “better” than losers, which rewards aggressive behaviors in the conduct of daily business affairs and that condones violence as an appropriate way to address wrongs.

We work in institutions that are run as businesses, where profitability trumps all other values. Where putting a price tag on the value of nursing has been an elusive goal. I’m sure Nightingale is proud of Linda Aiken’s research showing that when there is a higher ratio of RN’s to other staff, fewer patients die and there are less complications.

Yet, nursing holds on to the value of one human being helping another. We know the incredible privilege we have when people give us access to all levels of their being: their bodies, minds, spirits and emotions and we cherish that privilege. The public’s trust is reflected in the Gallup polls where nursing is consistently the most trusted profession.

We cherish the privilege of walking into the room of a sick person and being able to interact in a way that alleviates their pain, or increases their comfort. This is an act of nobility and dignity.

Nightingale said nursing is a noble profession; it is up to you nurses to make it noble. There is nothing wrong with our values, even though they are not shared by the system or society. If the world accepted our values, it would be a more civilized world.

Marie Manthey on the birthday of Florence Nightingale.