A Call to Nursing – and Beyond

Readings for the feast of Florence Nightengale, Friday, August 12, 2022: Psalm 73:23-29Jeremiah 30:12-17, Luke 10:29-37

In the story of the Good Samaritan, we are reminded that caring for the sick and injured is a calling from God, whether one plans it that way, or is happenstance.  Florence Nightengale answered that call, and even during the periods of her life when she was a semi-invalid, she fulfilled that call.  Although nearly everyone knows of her heroic deeds as a nurse in the Crimean War, and of the many medical innovations she developed as a result of that call, few realize she spearheaded many innovations that stretched beyond that time.

Florence was born in Florence, Italy, May 12, 1820 to wealthy British parents on holiday in Italy.  When she was 18, her father took her on a tour through Europe, and it was in Paris she met the famous English-born hostess Mary Clarke.  Although “Clarkey” was a bit of an eccentric, she was also a strong, independent woman in an era where strong, independent women were few and far between.  The two quickly bonded, and were friends for 40 years.  Mary’s influence was a key element of Florence’s young adulthood, and at age 18, she had discerned she had been called by God to nurse the sick.

This revelation was not without its detractors, including her own parents.  Prior to the advent of scientific nursing, nurses often consisted of war veterans (in military hospitals), lower-class uneducated women, and out-of-work prostitutes.  It was not considered a profession for well-bred young ladies.  

Hospitals at that time were dimly lit, foul-smelling, and often without running water or even the most basic sanitation.  When Florence traveled to nurse wounded Crimean War soldiers, for every soldier killed on the battlefield, ten died of infection.  Her perseverance in simply bringing basic hygiene and sanitation practices to post-battlefield care saved countless lives…but of course many of us have known this story since childhood.  More interesting are the contributions Florence Nightengale made “one step beyond” the core of her call.

For instance, any of us involved in statistical research are familiar with graphs and histograms. Did you know, Florence Nightengale was one of the first people to use charts and graphs extensively to document outcomes and present statistical analysis of findings?  She also recognized that good nutrition was essential to wound healing and at one of the hospitals where she served, lobbied (and got) a system of dumbwaiters installed so that hot food could be delivered quickly to multiple wards on multiple floors.  She invented the forerunner of what you and I know as “the call light”–a bell outside the room attached to a string that the patient could pull to ask for a nurse.  Her design even had a lever that tripped so, even if the patient stopped ringing, the nurse could see it had been rung.

These side innovations were probably not what she had in mind when she was caring for patients, but such is the nature of call–God calls us to the core of something, and when we faithfully attend to that call, we discover other things that are needed and stretch ourselves to go beyond the core of that call and reach further.

Likewise, she probably didn’t imagine, when she first felt called by God, that part of how she would fulfill it was by being a patient herself.  Although it’s hard (even for those of us in medicine) to retrospectively come up with a diagnosis on a historical figure, she likely suffered from a severe form of brucellosis, as well as depression.  Learning to BE a patient taught her invaluable lessons about caring for patients and teaching patient care skills to others.  Although her parents were Unitarian, she embraced the Church of England as an adult, and her faith was a large piece of how she learned to become one who was cared for, as opposed as the one who cares for others. When she died at the age of 90, her gravestone simply said, “F.N.,” along with the date of her death.

Florence Nightengale’s life serves to inform us about the nature of God’s call–that it may take us to places and situations we never imagined, when we first heard God whispering to us.  May we always remember that God never abandons us in that call, even if we find ourselves in uncharted territory.

Maria Evans splits her week between being a pathologist and laboratory director in Kirksville, MO, and gratefully serving in the Episcopal Diocese of Missouri , as Interim Priest at Trinity Episcopal Church in Hannibal, MO. 

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