Florence Nightingale's 200th birthday: a poignant time to reflect on the value of nursing
Updated: Jun 3
On the 12th of May every year, we celebrate International Nurses Day. And this year is extra special, because 2020 has been designated the Year of the Nurse and Midwife by the WHO to coincide with the 200th birthday of Florence Nightingale, the founder of nursing. Emotions of pride and hope were stirred last month when Project Nightingale, the government’s response to the current pandemic, named all seven of its brand new hospitals for COVID-19 patients in her honour.
Florence’s interest in nursing standards focused on hand hygiene, which made a huge difference during the Crimean War, reducing soldiers’ death rates from 42% to 2%. The premise of good hand washing is now nationally understood, giving further reassurance the new hospital will meet the current challenges of COVID-19.
My journey into nursing
My journey into nursing began in the 1970s, learning nursing skills in my first role as a Cadet Nurse in a Children’s Hospital. I had longed for such a role from the age of 8 when I looked after my brother on a family day out, ensuring he was safe at the seaside. I instinctively felt a need to care for him and it was from that moment that I knew I wanted to be a nurse.
The children I cared for as a cadet had rare, life limiting conditions which affected their cognitive understanding and functional ability. I was taught about ‘end of life’ nursing skills to help me recognise when children’s conditions were deteriorating and to support them and their families as they were nearing their end of life. This opportunity to engage in the value of learning, together with seeing the children enjoying being the centre of attention, despite their poor health, further encouraged me to pursue my career aims.
I began my nurse training by initially obtaining my paediatric certificate, followed by my registration in general and learning disability nursing. Other courses in physical assessment, counselling, prescribing and a degree in nursing set me up for my current role as a Practice Educator (Teacher) and Examiner.
Nurses revalidate every 3 years to prove they are ‘fit to practice’; they can have support when learning theory, practice and competencies. Support for revalidation makes me think of Florence Nightingale’s ‘Mentor’ - Mary Clarke. ‘Clarkey’ had an effervescent sparkling personality; she nurtured the concept of equality between men and women, encouraging Florence to treat others equally; and this strong principle continues to be respected by Nurses today.
Florence found her calling
Like me, Florence had always been determined to be a nurse; she said she had a ‘calling by God’ and she resolutely followed her nursing vocation, where her beliefs continued to be significant in her work. Today’s Nurses still continue to respect their patient’s spiritual care needs alongside their psychosocial and physical care. Currently, Nurses receive extra training in ‘all aspects of end of life nursing’, so they can give the best care at this time of distressingly high mortality for patients with COVID-19. Understandably, this is tough. But the camaraderie, built through team unity, fairness and non-judgemental behaviours is what carries us through these tough times.
Florence is known as ‘The Lady with the Lamp’ because she was recognisable when she made her rounds of wounded soldiers at night. Visibility is still a difficulty for night Nurses doing their rounds. In a previous role in the community, my ‘lamp’ was often a pocket torch when there was poor street lighting. No one’s called me ‘The Lady with a Torch’! The only mis-identification we had was when our dark trousers and white shirts were mistaken for police uniform and neighbours wanted to know whose house we were going to!
What Florence did for modern nursing
Florence had very basic means to assess her patients at risk, whereas now there are early warning systems to recognise deteriorating patients. This reflects the advancement of nursing skills. My colleagues who are redeployed from their usual work areas or who have answered the call to return find they are faced with a steep learning curve after being placed on COVID-19 wards; however they are finding all their skills come flooding back to them. Which suggests a motto such as ‘Keep Calm and Remember Why You’re a Nurse’ would be a great advert to encourage those considering returning to nursing!
Contemporary nurses are erudite and use highly complex equipment to monitor their patients’ care. The reputation and significance of nursing had a recent profile lift when the Prime Minister Boris Johnson said his Nurses Jenny McGee and Luis Pitarma watched over and cared for him every second during his hospitalisation, making interventions when needed, and saving his life.
There are still false assumptions that nursing is linear, and about doing physical tasks; but nursing is much more than that. The essential key is excellent communication, and nursing brings knowledge, skills and the opportunity to become a Specialist Nurse. The Specialist Nurse is a gem, an expert in their field. Nurses refer patients to their specialist colleagues for advice and management; and when there are particularly difficult challenges, they work together to make all the difference for their patients.
Florence was a gem of her time. Her pioneering work is celebrated by nurses across England every year on her birthday, 12th May. This year Nurses all over the country will be celebrating her 200th birthday by doing week-long virtual activities.
Today’s Nurses are leaders. They reduce risks, hold clinical audits to assess how well care is being carried out and some speak at conferences all over the world in their specialist subjects.
We proudly abide by the 6 ‘C’s’ - Care, Compassion, Courage, Communication, Commitment and Competence.
Because this is what Nurses do best.
Sarah Price, Nurse Practice Educator and Examiner