How utterly ironic. Nurses’ Day 2020 will be remembered as the year that our nation’s nurses from Cooperstown to Chicago were being honored by fire departments for their heroism with anthems of cacophony and flashing light shows — a tribute especially poignant in the time of COVID-19.
This is in comparison to their humble beginnings in the heart and mind of Florence Nightingale, who was born 200 years ago on May 6. Nightingale is considered to be the mother of modern nursing, and it was in the early 1850s she convinced the British government to allow female nurses to work with the sick and wounded of the Crimean War. It was during that time that she first demonstrated that good nursing care — and especially frequent hand washing — could save thousands of young lives.
Nurses earned their stripes as students in the late 19th and early 20th century by working 10 hours a day in the hospital wards. Living conditions were more like military barracks than college dorms. In 1913, students were paid about $15 per month for being apprenticed to the hospital for up to 100 hours per week.
Originally, nurses worked in either hospitals or in the home doing private duty. Today, nurses practice in many diverse roles: public health, schools, workplaces, clinics, and of course, the military.
They also function in a variety of newly emerging capacities. Nurse specialists are proliferating not only because these careers are rewarding but because nurses are moving to fill in gaps where health care is becoming more complex and sophisticated.
As health care expands, so, too, does the diversity of nursing specialties. Advanced practice nurses are clinical nurse specialists, nurse practitioners and nurse anesthetists. They collaborate with a wide variety of specialists: respiratory, occupational and physical therapists, hospitalists and intensivists. The list goes on.
In the mid 1970s, Otsego County made health care history by being one of the first rural areas in the country to get reimbursement for nurse practitioners from Medicare and Medicaid. The first county NP was employed by the Edmeston-Burlington Health Center, a clinic that is still part of the Bassett family.
While the nurse’s role is broadening into ever wider and more diverse roles, we are seeing a renewed emphasis on the basics of good health care, which Nightingale described in her 1860 book "Notes on Nursing": healthy foods, pure water, peace and rest, clean air, cleanliness — both personal and institutional. After all, what is the mantra for the time of COVID? Wash your hands.
As a quote from Mount Sinai Hospital said in a recent New York Times full-page public service announcement thanking nurses and all health care workers for their service in the time of COVID: “It is in extraordinary moments like these when the world recognizes how much you matter. . . The entire world will be behind you, forever in gratitude.”
Happy bicentennial birthday, Florence. You are always our hero.
A version of this column was originally published in 1996 in The Daily Star. It has been updated by the author who at that time worked as a nurse practitioner and is now associate chaplain at the Bassett Medical Center in Cooperstown..