by Linda Ryan
The year I was in third grade was a rough year. I seemed to catch just about every disease that came down the pike, and I missed a lot of school. I also found out what boredom was. Mama didn’t have time to read to me all the time, especially since I already knew how to read at least fairly well for my grade level, so I began rummaging through the house for every book I could lay my hands on. I read all my brother’s Hardy boys and started in on my own sets of Nancy Drew, Cherry Ames, and some books about famous people. One of the books that I remember reading was a biography of Florence Nightingale, the founder of what we might consider modern nursing. The book dealt mostly with her own history and her achievements as she brought a new level of care to injured and ill soldiers in the Crimean war. It was fascinating to me.
If there were one person who could be said to have changed things dramatically not just by herself but by example and persuasion, Florence Nightingale would have fit that category. She felt she was called by God to do something in the world, and so dedicated herself to a life of chastity in order to better discern and do what she felt God was calling her to do. Her parents and her family were aghast, since she gave up a young man whom she loved very much in order to follow what was considered an unseemly profession for a woman of her time and class. Nurses were usually women of ill repute, or broken down old man who found their comfort in a bottle of gin. This was a world into which Florence came, and what she saw perturbed or greatly.
Hospitals and first aid stations for those injured in battle or ill from environmental causes had an extremely rough time in those days. Sheets were never changed, and so, as soon as one person in the Bed died, he was replaced by another sick person without any change of linens or pillows. Blankets were filthy and vermin-infested, while meanwhile in storehouses not far away stacks new blankets were rotting because there was no system by which to get them into the hands of people who needed them. Conditions were filthy, food was sketchy and not very nutritious, and more soldiers died from illness and neglect in hospitals that actually died on the battlefields. This was the place that Florence came and the appalling state of things in which she found herself. But not for long.
She was strong-willed. She had been given a job to do by God, she felt, and so it fell to her to make a difference. She brought organization to the chaos that was the hospital, the treatment centers, and the supply system by which first-aid supplies were passed from the warehouse to the hospital. She introduced the idea of cleanliness, with lots of fresh, clean water, soap and elbow grease. She didn’t do this alone, because with her on her journey to the Crimea from England had also come 10 Roman Catholic nuns, 14 Anglican nuns, and 14 women who professed beliefs in anything from paganism to universalism. Florence and her band of nurses turned things around in those Crimean hospital wards, and set examples that could be followed in other battlefields, and even at home.
One thing Florence was most famous for was her gliding through the words in the night with the dim lantern in her hand, watching to see if any person had a need that she could fill. Whether it was a drink of water, a bedpan, a comforting word, or just a smile, the men looked to her and their eyes followed that light pacing through the almost endless rows of cots and were comforted. They began calling her “The Lady with the Lamp,” and that became a name by which she was known, not only in the Crimea but increasingly in her home country of England.
One thing that the book I read as a child never really touched on was Florence’s spiritual life, which to her was the basis of her calling and her duty. In her later life, when she wrote a manual for nursing, one requirement she felt was necessary was that each nurse spend five minutes out of every hour in prayer. I think that when seeing the horror of the injuries and the filth that surrounded her, her prayer life became even more important to her than it had been previously. It seems possible that five minutes an hour every hour was like an oasis where she could offer up what she was doing, pray for those for whom she toiled, and simply rested in God, coming forth from that prayer session renewed and rededicated. She was a mystic, although she would hesitate to be called that. She had her moments of trouble and doubt, just as most Christians do, but always came back to the service of God who had called her, and who sustained her as she continued to follow that call.
She didn’t seek praise and acclaim for what she did, even though, when she sailed home to England, a large parade and pageant were scheduled to welcome her and to show appreciation for all that she had done. She managed to sneak away for an entire day to a convent before she came into the public eye and the celebration. She did not look for the glory, and instead chose to quietly begin to reorient herself before rejoining society and beginning a new stage of work to help the sick and injured that crowded England cities and towns.
She worked to get legislation introduced that would benefit the veterans and the poor: safe, clean, water, and health-giving care when it was most needed. Again, she did not work alone, and sometimes drove those with whom she worked to exasperation and even exhaustion. Even in her later years when her own health had broken down, she still worked to accomplish what she felt God wanted her to accomplish. She died on this date in 1910. She was ninety years old, and her gravestone was simply marked with her initials and the dates of her birth and death. Even with her fame and acclaim, she remained humble and attuned to the will of God.
Florence Nightingale was heroine to me as a child, and even more now that I have a greater understanding of what she faced and how she overcame what were seemingly almost insurmountable barriers. It is something to think about, to look at her life and see how she worked to change things that were wrong and make them things that were beneficial. She saved a lot of lives simply by doing what she felt God called her to do. Wouldn’t it be nice or great or even super if each of us could be that much in tune to the will of God and the benefit of all human beings? It’s something to think about this week.