Nurses and Their Tradition of Sacrifice

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Hi, Listeners! I hope you are all hanging in there this week. I know we are in the middle of some stressful and uncertain times. I do welcome you, though, to season three of Look to See Me, a podcast that invites you to look closer at the lives of people around you and to take time to hear their stories. I’m Chris Pepple and today I’m going to talk about nurses. 

I’m recording this during the shelter-at-home mandate in my city during this coronavirus pandemic. I want to use this podcast to thank some of the people who are selflessly working to help bring this crisis to an end and who are working to help ease the suffering of all who are ill at this time. I’m also going to talk about some of the famous nurses in United States history. 

First, let’s look at today’s nurses. During this pandemic, we realize how valuable nurses and doctors are to our society. They sacrifice so much for our well-being. They care for children getting vaccines during well-child check-ups; they care for children dying from cancer. They clean up after sick patients. They take temperature and other vitals at all hours even when we complain about the care. They reassure parents; they try to keep worried families updated. They do all of this while still taking care of themselves and their own families. So, we all owe a debt to all of the caregivers and service workers and doctors and nurses providing hope in this pandemic. I’m just going to highlight a few specific examples of today’s nurses giving back. I’m sure your community could add thousands of examples to this podcast. 

The first shout out I’m going to give is actually to a nursing student who understands what her fellow nurses are facing. As a senior nursing student at LSU Health New Orleans, Kristina Rigterink decided she needed to do something to help nurses on the front lines of the pandemic crisis. She and her mother realized that medical supplies were in short supply across the country. Hundreds of healthcare workers were testing positive for coronavirus because they couldn’t get the masks, gloves, and other items they needed to stay safe while treating others. 

The two women decided to make a difference. They started organizing ways to collect supplies and get them into the hands of people who needed them the most. They gathered unused face masks, disposable gloves and surgical gowns that protect medical workers from catching and spreading the disease. As the word has spread around social media, more people are donating the supplies needed to keep our nurses and other healthcare workers safe. This nursing student stepped up when needed. 

On March 22, New Jersey issued a call for help. They needed nurses to help care for the patients flooding in for help. The New Jersey State Nurses Association answered the call. Their CEO, Judy Schmidt said: “We will do our part to swiftly contain COVID-19 by caring for every patient — no matter the sacrifice.”

Within one day, they had recruited more than 470 additional nurses who had been retired for less than five years. Other states are taking similar measures…nurses who have retired are stepping back into work for the greater good of our citizens. 

Eileen McStay, a registered nurse at the Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City, and many others like her are worried about protecting their families. McStay decided to send her kids to stay with their father during this crisis, and she doesn’t let friends come visit her because she could have possibly been exposed to the virus by patients. She works long shifts, then she goes home to an empty apartment with no one to care for her. It’s a choice that many nurses around the nation are making. 

But nurses have been making sacrifices throughout the history of our nation. Let’s look at some of the nurses who have made a difference in the past. Many of us read about the nurse Clara Barton when we were in school. Her life is certainly worthy to be discussed. Here, though, I want to talk about one of her relatives—her aunt, Martha Ballard. Ballard was born in 1734 and died in 1812. She was an American midwife that also worked as a nurse and herbal healer. She worked for 27 years as a caregiver in a pioneering community in Maine. 

During that time, Ballard delivered 816 babies and treated numerous ailing residents in a time when people often died due to lack of healthcare. What is fascinating about Ballard is that not only did she step up to serve, but she also kept detailed medical records on her patients. Many doctors at the time didn’t even do that. Through her diaries and writings, Ballard still gives us valuable information about the history of medical work in her day. For example, in an August 1787 entry, Ballard writes about traveling from house to house to care for children with scarlet fever, which is a form of a strep infection. While she was serving others, she recorded details about the herbal remedies she used. Thanks to her service, many people survived what could have killed them without care. Thanks to her writings, we have a glimpse at very early medical records from the beginnings of our nation.

Dorothea Dix didn’t start her working life as a nurse. She was first a teacher and an administrator for a private school in New England. During the Civil War, she saw a greater need, however. She volunteered for the Union Army and helped recruit other women to the nursing field. Dix eventually served as the Superintendent of Army Nurses for the Union Army. Dix became known for many things, but three things stand out to me: 

  1. She treated both Union and Confederate soldiers. Dix did not discriminate when it came to helping others. She saw the greater good and worked to help anyone in need. 
  2. She pushed for formal training and more opportunities for women nurses. She saw the valuable role nurses could play in the healthcare field and fought for the training they needed to succeed.
  3. Dix also fought for mental healthcare improvements. She devoted time to advocate for better treatment and care of patients suffering from mental illnesses. She eventually helped found a total of 32 institutions in the United States dedicated solely to the treatment of mental health illnesses.

Just a little aside here…did you know that First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln and poet Walt Whitman also volunteered as nurses during the Civil War. They stepped up in a time of need. Now, I’m mentioning them here because they did much more than just volunteer. Mary Todd Lincoln actually realized the value of the trained professional nurses and pushed for the organization of an actual nursing corps. After visiting his brother who had been wounded, Whitman signed up to be a nurse at the battle zone in Fredericksburg, Virginia, and volunteered in this capacity for three years. Some of his most famous poems are about his time as a nurse. 

Next I want to talk about Mary Seacole. She nursed wounded soldiers during the Crimean War. She actually set up what was known as the “British Hotel” behind the lines during the war. She and Florence Nightingale were working during the same time period. Seacole, born in Jamaica, applied to the War Office to officially work as a nurse during the war. She was turned down, and she (along with historians studying her life) wonder how much of a role racism played since Seacole was a mixed race, born to a Scottish father and a Jamaican mother. 

Being turned down didn’t stop her at all. She used her own resources to open a facility to nurse wounded officers and servicemen. She was posthumously awarded the Jamaican Order of Merit in 1991. In 2004 she was voted the greatest black Briton. Her autobiography, Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands (1857), is one of the earliest autobiographies of a mixed-race woman, and it details her work as a nurse and her challenges in working to overcome racism in this field.  

So, nurses have a long history of stepping up in times of need. They have worked tirelessly to ease suffering, help heal the sick, and mend the wounds of both soldiers and civilians. They have left a legacy of heroism and determination and self-sacrificing work. 

Our challenge for the week: thank a nurse. Mail a card. Send a text. Call in an order to a local restaurant and have food delivered to their home. Remember that there are people in the world that work without much recognition. If you are a nurse, I thank you for all of your work. I pray that you all stay well during this pandemic and that your families stay safe. Hang in there, nurses. Know that we appreciate all that you do! I’m doing my part and am following the requests for people to stay at home. My kids are taking their college classes from home, and I am working from home. 

Thank you for listening to this episode of Look To See Me. I hope you tune in again soon for another episode. Stay safe and stay well.