This week, May 6 – 12, has been set aside as National Nursing Week, with May 12 being a special day to remember our nurses. Of course, when we think ‘nursing’ the first person to come to mind is Florence Nightingale, the founder of modern nursing. She was an English nurse, writer and statistician.
Born on May 12, 1820 into a rich, upper-class family on the outskirts of Florence, she was named after the city of her birth. At an early age she believed God called her to be a nurse and she answered the call at the age of 24, in spite of the anger of her mother and her sister. A young woman of her stature and from such a well-to-do family was expected to marry and raise a family. She had many prominent beaus and marriage proposals but rejected them to follow her calling in the nursing field. Although she preferred the friendship of powerful men because they helped her attain her goals, she never married. Her father was not against her ambitions as the rest of the family was and he gave her an annual income that allowed her to live comfortably while she pursued her career. In fact, he believed women should be educated and he personally taught her Italian, Latin, Greek, philosophy, history, writing and mathematics.
In 1854 she and a staff of 38 female volunteer nurses, whom she had trained and of whom one was her aunt, were sent 295 miles across the Black Sea where the main British camp was based during the Crimean War. Medicines were in short supply and they found the soldiers were being badly cared for by overworked doctors. Mass infections were common and many of them fatal because of the unhealthy conditions. During her first winter in Scutari, 4,077 soldiers died. Ten times as many more died from illnesses such as typhus, typhoid, cholera and dysentery than from battle wounds. Defective sewers and lack of ventilation were two of the unsanitary conditions. Six months after her arrival and at her request, the British government organized and sent a Sanitary Commission to the area and the flushing out of the sewers and improvements in ventilation helped reduce the death rate. This experience influenced her later career in advocating the importance of sanitary living conditions, reducing deaths in the army and during peacetime. The Florence Nightingale Fund for the training of nurses was soon set up after many generous donations from her affluent friends. She established a school of nursing in 1860 at St. Thomas’ Hospital in London that is still in existence. It is called the Florence Nightingale School of Nursing and Midwifery and is part of the King’s College.
Nightingale came to prominence when attending soldiers during the Crimean War. The soldiers called her “the lady with the lamp” because she carried a lamp while making her rounds at night. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the famous poet, wrote a poem about her and the lamp. Nightingale wrote many books, letters, text books and journals describing health conditions, physical descriptions and dietary information. Most were published during her lifetime. At one time, nurses were regarded as ignorant, uneducated persons. Thank goodness that mindset has changed. Nightingale’s work served as an inspiration for nurses in the American Civil War. She received many awards, among them the Royal Red Cross by Queen Victoria and she was the first woman to receive the Order of Merit.
From the year 1857, Nightingale was intermittently bedridden and suffered from depression. She was diagnosed with brucellosis and spondylitis. Brucellosis is a highly contagious disease caused by unsterilized milk or meat from infected animals. Spondylitis is degenerative osteoarthritis of the joints. Even though she was bedridden for great lengths of time, she remained productive in social reform and did pioneering work in hospital planning across the world. Florence Nightingale died August 13, 1910 at the age of 90.
Wondering what draws a person to become a nurse in the 21st century, I interviewed a young woman from the nursing profession. Her name is Devon Rashell Couch, mother to Donnie, age 5, and Ava Renee, 10 months. Even with the help of a caring and thoughtful husband, she admits that it is not always easy to juggle her life as wife, mother to her munchkins (as she lovingly calls them), cooking and cleaning and finds it difficult to catch up on her sleep. One day she worked an especially trauma-filled day at the hospital, going without eating from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Couch always wanted to be a nurse and as the eldest child in a family of eight children, she was always a nurturing person and loved taking care of the younger children. She had plans to join the army as a medic but feels God had a different plan for her. A month before heading for Fort Benning, Ga., she became ill and was unable to go. She missed fall enrollment to any university, but thanks to a sympathetic director at the local community college, she was able to join as a late admissions to the nursing program. Since she had taken some medical courses in high school, when she graduated she was already a nursing assistant. Since there was a shortage of nurses at that time, she was hired immediately at the same hospital she was born in 27 years ago.
Upon advice from her college professors, she worked for a year on a general medical/surgery unit before transferring to the physical rehabilitation unit. It was while working therapy on a patient that she met her husband. Couch was nurse to her future father-in-law. Her patients range from those needing help after knee replacements to patients learning to talk and walk again after a stroke. It means so much to her to be a part of their progress and recovery.
Couch said, “When I see a patient come in, unable to feed themselves or communicate their needs to us it saddens me, but when they are discharged and give me a big hug and say thank you, it brings tears to my eyes. Every day as a nurse is truly rewarding.”
Later this month, she will start work in the postpartum unit where she has always wanted to be, caring for the new mothers and the babies after delivery.
Most of us have experienced at least one hospital stay and the doctors are most important, of course; they diagnose, operate, make rounds each day and follow up on our recovery. But who is there taking care of us all day long? Helping us learn to walk again, bathing us, bringing our medications to us, taking our vitals and giving us the encouragement we need to get through each day?
God bless nurse Couch and others like her. Take this opportunity to thank a nurse this week.