If nurses were not preoccupied with fighting COVID-19 they would be celebrating the profession of nursing. With a twist of irony, long before the words 'global pandemic' had been uttered, the World Health Organization and the International Nursing Council declared 2020 to be the International Year of the Nurse and Midwife. The idea was to have the celebration of nursing coincide with several pivotal nursing events: the 200th anniversary of the birth of Florence Nightingale who was born May 12th, 1820, the culmination of a three-year campaign of Nursing Now, which focused on the global nursing shortage and improving mother/infant health, and the release of the State of the World’s Nursing Report.
The pandemic has created its own way of celebrating nurses by showcasing the unique role we play in healthcare.
I fully appreciate everybody involved in the medical field and have relied heavily on the services of non-nursing staff members over the years, but today I am celebrating nursing. I remember admiring what I thought was a genie lamp on my mother’s whatnot shelf. She explained to me that the white porcelain lamp with a handle on one end and a small candle on the other was her Nightingale lamp. It was a memento she treasured from her graduation from Moline Public Hospital School of Nursing in 1948. In 1980 I received my own "genie lamp" when I graduated from the same school and recited the Nightingale Pledge while clutching my candle-lit lamp in fingers that were slightly shaking but had steadily accomplished many new skills during my three years of school.
It is with disbelief that I recently realized that the International Year of the Nurse happens to be my 40th year in the profession. It is unfathomable how quickly time has flown and how many times my hands that once held that little lamp have served me well in this calling. They have palpated veins for IV insertion, determined proximity to delivery time for an infant, touched a fevered brow, clasped the hand of a grieving mother, performed chest compressions, wiped tears, and been folded in prayer.
While nursing soldiers during the Crimean War, Florence Nightingale realized that more deaths were occurring from disease than from combat wounds. She made changes to the sanitation of the war-riddled hospitals which dramatically decreased the disease mortality rate. She is romanticized as the "Lady with the Lamp" because she walked through the wards carrying a lit lamp.
Another battlefield nurse of note during the Crimean War is Mary Seacole. The daughter of a Jamaican mother and a Scottish father, she nursed Panamanians during the Cholera epidemic 10 years before being rejected when she tried to go to Crimea as an army nurse. It is thought the color of her skin was the cause for her rejection. She went to Crimea on her own and became known as "Mother Seacole" for her compassionate care of the wounded.
As a child I read all the biographies in my school library. Clara Barton was a Civil War nurse who founded the American Red Cross. Dorthea Dix pioneered mental health and secured safer care for those with mental illness during a time when they were treated atrociously. Calamity Jane is known for being part of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, but she nursed miners during an outbreak of smallpox in 1878.
None of the nursing stories I read could compare to my mother’s tales of being a nurse in the United States Naval Reserves during the Korean conflict or when she worked on a polio ward caring for patients in iron lungs.
Whether nurses are fighting cholera, polio, smallpox, COVID-19, or nursing shortages we will always fight for those whose care is in our hands.
Anne VandeMoortel is a Moline school nurse, blogger, grandmother of five, Prader-Willi mother, serial hobbyist, and collector of people and their stories.