I am writing this piece on the train between Oakville and Kingston having travelled to Toronto for the book launch of MESS: THE HOSPITAL ANTHOLOGY published by Tightrope Books. I am one of the contributors to this collection of writings about hospitals in Canada. I was honoured to be saluted at the launch by the editor, Julie Devaney, (author of MY LEAKY BODY) for writing a “wonderful contribution from the old days of nursing.” Old days? Gak! I guess so.
I began my nursing training at the age of 17 in 1968 and I was proud indeed to be a member of the first class of the Credit Valley School of Nursing in Mississauga, Ontario. The programme was the “old two plus one” system of hospital training. Sixty-three of us were chosen to be the students that would graduate from this new school and selection was rigorous. Thirty-two of us succeeded and graduated and took the provincial exams to become registered nurses. We were evaluated on a day-to-day basis, on the wards and in the classroom , as one would expect of a profession with such responsibilities. Graduation was not something we ever took for granted and standards were high – Florence Nightingale being the role model held up to us. I wore my jet-black cape with scarlet lining to and fro the hospital with an image of the “Lady of the Lamp” foremost in my mind.
Florence Nightingale is the founder of modern nursing and is called “the Lady of the Lamp” for her habit of making rounds at night. Born into a wealthy, upper class family in Britain, in 1820, she was very well-connected and was expected to become a wife and mother and to lead a life in keeping with her “status.” She rebelled, however, angering (it is said) her mother and sister by answering a ‘call’ to serve. She became a celebrated social reformer and came into public recognition ministering to wounded soldiers during the Crimean War. She established the first secular nursing school in the world which is now part of King’s College in London, England.
I have always been an admirer of Florence Nightingale. Inspired by her example and fascinated by her work. I talked about this with my friend, Linda, who accompanied me to the book launch. Linda is a long-time friend and colleague of over 40 years who retired this year after a nursing career of 41 years – most of it spent in the Intensive Care Unit. I was in the profession for a short period compared to Linda who had a full career as a nurse. Linda, for me, is an example of the ‘old’ style nurse in the vein of Florence Nightingale ( read devoted, dedicated and skilled). Therefore, I invited Linda to go to the book launch with me and to celebrate our time as nurses together. We giggled, talked about the past – especially the nurses and doctors we knew who are now long gone from this plane of existence. It is likely they now have the honour of meeting the Lady of the Lamp in person on the other side! This lady who means so much to us.
Although I knew that Florence had a reputation for hospital hygiene and sanitation (which is sorely needed today!) and that she was deeply devoted to her profession of nursing, there was much I did not know and needed to look up on Wikipedia. Apparently, her social reforms improved healthcare in all sectors of British society and she also advocated for “better hunger relief in India.” She helped to abolish laws regulating prostitution that were more than cruel to women and she also expanded the forms of female participation acceptable in the workplace of her time and was a versatile and prolific writer – spreading her medical knowledge using simple language so that those who were less literate than herself would benefit. I was surprised to learn that she was also instrumental in popularizing the use of graphs to present statistical information. A well-travelled person, she had been as far as Egypt and Greece and much of her writing, including works of religion and mysticism were only published after her death in 1910.
I journeyed back in time at the book launch and remembered taking the Nightingale Pledge ( with my fellow grads) on the stage at the Credit Valley School of Nursing auditorium ( orange walls and purple shag carpets as a reflection of the times!) 43 years ago this June. Funnily enough, I just started wearing a black cape this winter. No red lining though. Even though I am no longer a registered nurse – I am still an r.n. ( retired nurse). And, proud to be one.
With thanks to John Keats, Monica