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Celebrating Nurses from Crimea to COVID-19Celebrating Nurses from Crimea to COVID-19

Celebrating Nurses from Crimea to COVID-19

This May marks the 200th birthday of Florence Nightingale and the start of a nursing-led health care revolution, reports Convivium contributor Susan Korah.

Susan Korah
5 minute read

Today, our world needs healing and to be rekindled with Love.
    Once, Florence Nightingale lit her beacon of lamplight to comfort the wounded.
    Her light has blazed a path of service across a century to us --

    through her example and through the countless nurses and healers
    who have followed in her footsteps.

Nightingale prayer, composed in 1996, By Dr. Deva-Marie Beck, Canadian Director of the NGO, Nightingale Initiative for Global Health (NIGH) in Istanbul, Turkey where the architect of modern nursing began her work during the Crimean War of 1853-56.

When Annette Kennedy, the Irish President of the International Council of Nurses said last year that she was expecting the year 2020 to be a “momentous year for nurses,” little did she anticipate that the outbreak of COVID-19 that would transform nurses from the unsung, anonymous heroes of the healthcare profession to the newest stars in an age of instant celebrities.

Coincidentally, this year also happens to be the bicentennial of the birth of Florence Nightingale, the founding mother of modern nursing, born 200 years ago on May 12. The WHO has also declared it the International Year of the Nurse and Midwife.

The visionary Englishwoman’s innovative contributions to healthcare practice—considered revolutionary in her time—are as relevant to today’s COVID-19-stricken world as when her Canadian student, Charlotte McLeod, helped establish the Victorian Order of Nurses (VON). The VON played a key role in fighting the typhoid epidemic during the Klondike Gold Rush between 1896 and 1899.

Nightingale’s contributions to modern nursing and healthcare range from the philosophical to the strictly practical, say Canadian scholars who have studied her life and legacy.

“Nightingale revolutionized secular nursing by first demonstrating her innovations through her remarkable, unprecedented nursing service during the Crimean War,” said Dr. Deva Marie Beck.

One of Canada’s foremost experts on Nightingale, Beck is the Canadian director of Nightingale Initiative for Global Health (NIGH). It is an international NGO established to “honour the legacy of Florence Nightingale and other nurses and healthcare workers who have shown, by their example, how their actions contribute significantly to a peaceful, prosperous and healthy world.”

Beck told Convivium, “Nightingale established and oversaw the training of nurses—at her Nightingale Schools—an education that became the widely-used curriculum for nursing schools across the world.”

She added that among the health practices Nightingale introduced was handwashing and strict cleanliness—concepts unknown in an era when scientists had not yet discovered the connection between disease-spreading bacteria and dirt. 

Today, of course, “wash your hands” has become central to COVID-19 messages from every traditional media outlet and social media platform.

“Nightingale is also recognized as one of the founders of the study of statistics and the collection of data to show patterns of response to disease and patterns of death from disease,” Beck said. “If Nightingale were alive today, she would totally cheer for the data gathering and modeling of disease patterns through the statistics that are now widely used to understand and stop the spread of COVID 19.”  

She added that as deeply spiritual woman, Nightingale not only envisioned her life’s work as her answer to God’s call for service, but saw every aspect of it, including the collection of data, as a way to understand God’s work in our lives.  

Nightingale’s vision of the nurse’s role extended well beyond that of   bedside caregiver, emphasized Dr. Cheryl van Daalen-Smith, Associate Professor at York University’s School of Nursing, and editor of Witness: The Canadian Journal of Critical Nursing Discourse

Health education or raising public awareness of preventive measures as part of the nurse’s contributions to society was a key concept that Nightingale advanced, agreed Beck.

“Nightingale would have championed the work of today’s public health officials—including nurses—who are so focused on keeping everyone informed about the measures everyone needs to take to stay safe and well during the COVID crisis,” Beck said.

Dr. van Daalen-Smith referred to another valuable lesson that health policy makers and all of us touched by the pandemic can learn from Nightingale’s legacy. This was the advice that the “lady with the lamp” as she was known, gave to nurses to “see it write it and change it"—to document their experiences and help change health policy and practices for the better.

“Like Nightingale, we must continue to find multiple ways to promote and protect health and dignity and speak up,” van Daalen-Smith said. “ Nurses are witnessing much in this global pandemic, and I believe that our voices in this international year (of the nurse), the universe has placed us front and centre in the witnessing, mitigating and eventually in the changing of all the myriad inequities that this global pandemic lays bare.”

Nurses and other frontline healthcare workers are indeed witnessing much. Not only the extra hardships and risks that the pandemic places on the poor and the most marginalized, but also, the agony of all COVID-19 patients— regardless of socio-economic status— breathing their last without the spiritual and emotional comfort of clergy administering last rites, or loved ones at their bedside. 

These frontline caregivers are engulfed in the grief and overwhelming pain of families, friends and communities who have lost loved ones. And as foot soldiers in the battle against the pandemic, they themselves are putting their lives on the line to minimize or avert such tragedies.

Every day, communities across the world are applauding their heroic and self-sacrificing efforts in a variety of ways from formal words of thanks delivered via TV screens by Heads of State and Ministers of Health to the banging of pots and pans on balconies by grateful citizens.

On May 12, people around the world will have an opportunity to commemorate Nightingale’s 200th birthday and also to honour all those who have dedicated their lives to caring for humanity in its hour of greatest need.

In partnership with several other NGOs, NIGH is planning a global “virtual” celebration that honours Nightingale and those who have followed in her footsteps.

Nurses, other healthcare workers and the pubic around the world are invited to join in this special event.

As the earth spins on its axis on May 12, participants in each time zone will be able to join others at 12:00 noon, local time, in a guided meditation in several languages on Nightingale’s ideal of universal, equitable healthcare and a healthy word for all. 

“This event, called the Global Coherence Event, will be a fitting tribute not only to nurses and professional healthcare workers, but to the caregiver in all of us,” said Beck. “It will symbolize our hopes for healing, and for a world rekindled with love and a spirit of compassionate service,” said Beck. 

Information on how to participate in this event can be found here.

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