Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Tracing the Legacy of Florence Nightingale

Any time you see a nurse putting on gloves before inspecting a patient, throwing away used cotton balls, or simply washing her hands, you are witnessing the legacy of Florence Nightingale.

Back in the 1850s, this woman used her wit, compassion and intelligence to build the foundations of the modern practice of nursing as we know it today. Believe it or not, before Nightingale, nursing was considered a dirty, shameful profession for women who could do no better; nurses were very nearly considered prostitutes.

Florence Nightingale grew up in the early 1800s in a comfortable, educated home in England. Very early in life, Florence exhibited a charitable personality, disliking the social disadvantages for Victorian women and the miserable conditions of the poor. At age 24, against her parents’ wishes, she followed her calling and became a nurse, then spent a decade working and studying in hospitals all over England and Ireland.

When the Crimean war broke out in 1854 (a long-standing conflict between the Russian empire and various European countries), the newsstands started telling shocking stories of injured British soldiers who were living in appalling conditions and dying of preventable diseases.

In response to the public outcry over the wretched conditions of military hospitals, Nightingale volunteered to act as Head Nurse in Turkey. Here, she gathered the skills, knowledge and courage to change the way hospitals ran forever.

When Nightingale and the 38 other nurses in her party arrived in Scutari, Turkey, what she saw started a fire that is still burning today. The men were living in small, dank rooms without blankets or properly cooked food; they were dirty, unwashed and rife with infection, without an adequate sanitation system to filter their waste. It’s not surprising, then, that war wounds accounted for only one death in six at this time, with diseases like cholera, typhus and dysentery tallying the rest.

When Florence first attempted to make changes to these infirmaries, she was met with contempt and disdain from the British army, for she was only a woman. But when she sent word back to the newspapers in England, and The Times publicized the conditions of these wounded British soldiers, Nightingale was given the authority to make organizational reforms.

Under her keen leadership, sanitary conditions improved and the death rate fell from 42% to only 2% in a matter of months. She worked tirelessly to not only save the lives of these injured men, but improve their living conditions and give them as much comfort as possible. On her feet for twenty hours a day, she administered medicine, good cheer and love for her patients, and pattering around the halls at night checking on the soldiers earned her the affectionate nickname, “Lady of the Lamp.” One of her charges, a famous poet named Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, wrote a poem about her called “Santa Filomena,” in which he reverently writes, “A lady with a lamp shall stand/ In the great history of the land/ A noble type of good/ Heroic womanhood.”

Nightingale not only elevated the profession of nursing into a respectable career for women, started various professional schools for nursing, and wrote prolifically on health practices, she also famously implemented standards for sanitation in European hospitals. She convinced the traditionally male-dominated war generals and politicians that there was a significant need for traditionally female tasks, like cleaning and preparing food, nurturing soldiers and washing clothes and sheets. This simultaneously improved the role of women in the strict Victorian society and changed the way hospitals operated for the betterment of all.

Today, of course, both women and men enjoy the rewarding career of practical nursing, but the profession’s high standards all started with Florence Nightingale. Her legacy of health standards and sanitation, women’s equality and respect for nursing resonates in every patient, every nurse and every doctor today.

Nancy Woo is a freelance writer who covers various lifestyle industries including health care, education, and fitness.