In the words of Mary Adelaide Nutting (the first professor of nursing), “Nursing is one of the most difficult of arts. Compassion may provide the motive, but knowledge is our only working power.”
If you stop to think about it, there have been those who nursed the sick for thousands of years. Two that come easily to mind are Elizabeth of Hungary, daughter of King Andrew the Second who organized food for the populace during the famine of 1226; arranged for the construction of hospitals to care for lepers and cared for the sick until her death at the age of 24 and Florence Nightingale, who with the help of 38 other nurses reorganized the military hospital during the Crimean War in 1853-1856. Nurse Nightingale turned down many offers of marriage choosing instead to devote her time to studies in health and caring for the poor.
Not only does nursing require compassion and unselfishness, it demands extensive training and experience to truly become a proficient nurse. Popular belief is that the doctors heal but it is the nurses who perform the day to day caring of a patient. Often nurses are called upon by patients to be the mothers and wives who cannot be there. Nurses are expected to widen their sphere of professional knowledge and that requires an ever present desire to study. Lives are at stake and nurses need to make speedy judgments when needed. Qualities like tolerance and flexibility are invaluable in a nurse. Without the ability to remain open-minded, it is difficult to get on well with colleagues and assimilate new skills and hospital routines. Having an opened mind is why most nurses are personable and approachable.
Needless to say, medicine and healthcare would not exist without them. A doctor has not the time to put a band-aid on your child’s cut, take your husband’s blood pressure or comfort you while timing your contractions. All simple tasks but someone has to do them in hospital and it will not be an orderly and it will not be a doctor.
Whether giving medication or drawing blood or inserting an intravenous device nurses are called upon to exercise extreme care. They cannot afford to make any mistakes, especially in countries where litigation is common. It is not unusual for nurses to find themselves at odds with the attending doctor. Courage, tact, and diplomacy allow nurses the voice to alert the establishment when doctors are at fault. Nurses are legally responsible for any medications that they administer or treatments that they are ordered to perform. They are libel for any harm that may result while a patient is in their care. Being diligent and conscientious saves lives. Nurses want to give the best of their knowledge.
Nursing is not what it was in 1226 or what it was in the 1800s. Nor does it resemble what it was 50 years ago. There exists now a number of factors contributing to the stress nurses face each day that were not so prevalent back then. One stress factor is violence on the job. Nurses are more likely to experience violent attacks while at work than prison guards. At last look, 72% of nurses surveyed felt vulnerable. unsafe and at risk of assault in their working environment. Are drugs to blame? Is alcohol behind the violence? Or perhaps grief? No one has the answer and the questions are not raised that often.
A second stress factor is burnout. How often do we read of staff shortages? Nurses that are forced to work overtime; nurses that need to skip breaks or rush meals; nurses that are made to survive on low wages; become nurses that cannot give adequate care. If made to work under such frustrating circumstances, nurses suffer burnout. Burnout includes depression, anger and pain.
A final stress factor is watching patients die. “Continuously giving of time, care and sympathy drains a person,” says an older Egyptian nurse who watched 30 of the terminal patients she cared for die over ten years.
Although technology is highly valued by the medical field worldwide, it can never replace the compassion of a nurse. Machines are not capable of empathy. As this pandemic shows many nurses will go above and beyond the call of duty. As a person lays dying it is not a machine that is wanted rather a nurse is called upon to help meet death with as little distress and discomfort as possible. Nursing is here to stay until disease is eradicated forever.