May 12, 2012

Mother of Health Care Reform


I am by inclination a curmudgeonly, cynical man, inherently afraid of life and the people who populate this world.  If you don’t believe me, then ask Linda what I’m like first thing in the morning.  My faith in God owes much to the simple fact that I wake up in that condition on most mornings and have experienced the miracle of a transformed attitude almost every day of my life.  My worst days are seldom as bad as my first waking thoughts.

As for my surprised and surprising faith in human beings, you can credit most of that to the nursing profession. 

That is why I couldn’t let this last day of National Nurses’ Week pass without a very deep bow to nurses. 

My work as a chaplain, director of pastoral care & education and now vice president of mission and ministry in the Baylor Health Care System has privileged me with a front row seat to witness courage, passionate advocacy and compassionate care for hurting people. 

Today is an especially appropriate time because it is the birthday of the mother of modern nursing, Florence Nightingale. 
In case you thought that name was just a pop reference for someone who has a misplaced do-gooder’s complex (as in, “who does she think she is, Florence Nightingale?”), then you ought to know a little more about her. 

Nightingale flouted convention to go into the nursing profession.  Evidently nurses were considered to be little more than drunks and prostitutes in her time, a little bit like shepherds in Jesus’ time.  Nightingale singlehandedly raised the profile of the profession even as she revolutionized standards of medical care through the innovations she pioneered during the Crimean War and after as she established a school for nurses.  “The world is put back by the death of every one who has to sacrifice the development of his or her peculiar gifts to conventionality,” said Nightingale. 

She also said, “The martyr sacrifices themselves entirely in vain. Or rather not in vain; for they make the selfish more selfish, the lazy more lazy, the narrow narrower.” Apparently Florence was a stubborn and pragmatic advocate of free thinking in her time who followed God’s call on her life. She was decades ahead of her time in understanding that God never called anyone to a conventional life but without fail calls us to  lives of service to God’s children.

I’ve known dozens of nurses who have carried on that tradition.  Not least among them was Ileana (not her real name), who in defiance of her culture and in spite of religious sanctions from her church divorced an abusive husband after her broke both her wrist,.  She raised her son as a single mother and set about building a twenty-five year nursing career in this country that was devoted to the same mixture of stubborn insistence on doing things her way and profound faith that God was leading her.

Nightingale was a pioneering advocate of holistic health care. Here is the way that she put it, "Patients are to be put in the best condition for nature to act on them, it is the responsibility of nurses to reduce noise, to relieve patients’ anxieties, and to help them sleep." 

Just this past year I listened to Fe talk about her nursing care of a patient who had become infamous on her nursing unit for his acid wit and his temper tantrums.  Fe was unfazed by challenge of caring for him. She responded with care and a listening ear as well as an invitation to pray with him if he thought it appropriate.  A simple prayer and a willingness to listen resulted in outpouring of loneliness, grief and alienation from one of his children.  Ultimately Fe’s holistic care helped this patient to reconcile with God and with one of his children. All because Fe never considered that nursing was just completing a list of medical tasks.

Like Nightingale, nurses in almost every health care institution I know, are so passionate about their calling that they routinely take vacation time to travel to places all over this world where people are living in hell, in order to bring some realistic measure of healing and hope to them.  For instance, this year Baylor Health Care System’s Faith in Action Initiatives contributed more than $50,000 to support the volunteer efforts of nurses in medical missions from South Africa to the Philippines to South and Central America.  And nurses work sacrificially in free community health clinics all over the metroplex which are sponsored by BHCS.

I could go on for pages and pages about the things I’ve been taught by nurses over the years, but I’m going to stop here. Suffice it to say If I were king of the world, I’d rearrange the scale of payment for services so that professional athletes and nurses swapped places. 

There are few other professions that sacrifice as much while simultaneously contributing as much the lives of individuals.  There are few other occupations whose members routinely risk as much on an emotional, spiritual and often even a physical level as do nurses.

So please, by all means take a moment to consider what your life would be like if nurses were not the force for good that they are in this world.  And take a moment to thank God for a hard headed woman who lived a scandalous life, because she changed the life you can expect to lead.



For more on Florence NIghtingale, go here.

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