12th May 1820 is the birth date of Florence Nightingale, a day now celebrated across the globe as International Nurses Day. In the nearly 20 years since I started my medical training, I have worked with, and learned from, hundreds of inspiring nurses. As a medical student, theatre nurses taught me sterile technique and how to do a surgical scrub, nurses from the cannula team let me practise IV access with them, ED nurses kindly assisted my first attempts to suture. As an intern, nurses discreetly directed me to the charting and ordering preferred by certain bosses, pushed me when I needed to make my first decisions, and reminded me of the power I had to advocate for patients. There is not enough room to list the things I have learned from ICU nurses throughout my specialist training. The machines, the practicalities, how to make sure the words I said while running an arrest actually turned into action. Some reassurance when I doubted. Some doubt when I was too assured. Cheering me on through gruelling specialist exams. Revealing to me the small things that smooth the edges of the ICU for patients and families.
I still remember the very first nurse who taught me something. It was February 2003, O-week at the University of Newcastle, Australia. I sat, filled up to my eyelids with enthusiasm and idealism, at the welcome session for students in the Faculty of Health. The Deans of Allied Health, Nursing & Midwifery, and Medicine were lined up to address the students. The Dean of Medicine spoke, congratulating the medical students for procuring such highly coveted places – only 59 students selected out of over 2000 applicants. He went on to tell us some other statistics about how well Newcastle graduate doctors served the Australian medical community. I remember thinking the address was a bit dry, but I didn’t care. I had the rosiest of rose coloured glasses on. Once the idea to study medicine had entered my head (a couple of years after finishing high school) it had become a visceral desire for me. I struggled to picture my life doing anything else. I found the application process bewildering, but I persevered, and to my joyful disbelief, I had ‘gotten in’. I had been practically levitating ever since.
After the Dean of Medicine spoke, the Dean of Nursing & Midwifery took the stage. She seemed to hold the gaze of every human in the auditorium. Her words are printed on my memory. She said, “Nurses make up the huge majority of the health workforce globally. Without nurses, medical care does not happen. It is good nursing that delivers prescribed medical therapy. Good nursing prevents complications. Good nursing makes a difference to patients and families. Good nursing saves lives.” Hundreds of students in that auditorium sat up straighter. I gazed around at my future nursing colleagues. The Dean’s words had put them centre stage in my thoughts about my future work.
I have no idea of the name of the woman who was Dean of Nursing at that time. When writing this post, I couldn’t find a list of past Deans on UoN’s website. But one of the many times her words echoed through my head was at the start of 2020 – The World Health Organisation’s International Year of the Nurse and Midwife – as I RSVP-ed to all the fun events we had planned for that year to celebrate our nursing colleagues. Everyone knows how the story went from there. No celebrations. No public accolades. No speeches of awe and appreciation. The world spent the year reeling from the COVID-19 pandemic. It was one of the most stressful, tiring, relentless periods in many a healthcare worker’s career.
I was happy that the WHO decided to extend the year of the Nurse and Midwife through 2021, naively thinking we might be ‘back to normal’. But as 2021 drew to a close I realised again that we had not been able to celebrate our closest colleagues in the ways that we traditionally would like to. As the globe grappled with the Delta variant, and then Omicron; with ongoing border restrictions, and political conflicts around vaccination and other public health measures; the human damage due to the economic fallout of the pandemic; and the chronic grief of so many who have had loved ones die, or who have been forced to be separated for prolonged periods, there has been little space left for celebration, reflection, and thanks. The bitter irony of it all is that our nursing colleagues have, as always, been the backbone of front line healthcare throughout this once-in-a-century catastrophe.
So I would like to take this moment, on International Nurses Day, to pause and reflect. I have hope that we will, one day, organise the parties, balls, and events, and say the speeches that we had planned at the start of 2020. But today I would like to offer my own words – a poem – to pay tribute to, and celebrate the work of nurses everywhere. A special mention to PICU nurses – it is World PICU awareness day tomorrow and how better to celebrate it than in recognising the incredible work of PICU nurses.
Making sense: a sonnet overflowing is a poem that observes the skilled and compassionate care that my nursing colleagues deliver to fragile, critically unwell children. The poem was inspired by a particular patient, but there is no way to identify them from the words written here. The focus of the poem is the nursing care – the same care I have seen delivered to thousands of patients over the years. I have included a quote from Florence Nightingale at the beginning. She says, “I am of certain convinced that the greatest heroes are those who do their duty in the daily grind… whilst the world whirls as a maddening dreidel.” I cannot think of more apt words for our times.
Happy International Nurses Day!
Making sense: a sonnet overflowing
“I am of certain convinced that the greatest heroes are those who do their duty in the daily grind… whilst the world whirls as a maddening dreidel.” – Florence Nightingale
They nurse you by a window so the light
can flow from sun to moon across your skin
and hold you in the rhythm of the skies,
catch shadows on your cheeks as starlight slips
through your impossible lashes.
Cool beams leak from machines beside your bed,
they watch your every wave, infuse more time.
There’s plastic in your arms, your chest, your neck—
our access to your pulse, and breath, the life
that we hold like crystal eggshells.
A bedside lamp lights moments in the pale;
its golden dust falls in between the cares
that punctuate an anguished guessing game—
which drug, or change, might cradle you the best…
or do you only need warm hands?
They nurse you, moved by love, wrapped close by fear.
A thousand kindnesses soak pain from here
and make quiet sense of the blaze.