Nursing lessons from history

Guest posts

Faculty: Health, Education, Medicine and Social Care
School: School of Nursing and Midwifery
Category: Nursing and midwifery

13 October 2014

Jacinta Kelly is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Nursing & Midwifery in Anglia Ruskin’s Faculty of Health, Social Care & Education. Jacinta teaches on our nursing degree course and is very research-active in the areas of nursing history and the image of nursing.

We all remember teachers, some more than others and not all for the right reasons. The ones we remember fondly are those who have said something that stayed with us. And while we might have rebelled against it initially, it was invariably something that would leave a lasting impression.

As a trainee nurse in the 1980s, I distinctly remember the advice given to me by my nursing tutor who insisted that when on duty in the hospital or the community, nurses should ‘never run unless there is fire or haemorrhage’. Nowadays, and even at that time in the late 80s, this advice might have seemed Ladybird in approach and somewhat reminiscent of grim boarding school rules. However, the saying is soaked in history and has its origins in the Second World War, when the outbreak of fire could be a very real occurrence in hospitals or the community during war time. With hospitals in England under the constant threat of air strikes, especially large teaching hospitals or communities in large cities such as Liverpool or London, nurses often had to act with courage and bravery to save lives as the threat of casualty became a daily routine. Resources were in short supply, especially essential medical items such as dressings, needles and blood products. It was a given that  nurses had to economise – not just with medical supplies, but even with basic items such as paper and toiletries.

It wasn’t uncommon to hear a sharp ‘Nurse, don’t you know there is a war on?’ from the sister in charge when a nurse was seen to be wasteful with the few resources available. Even something as small as leaving a bar of soap in a patient’s bowl of water was unheard of.

Nurses were expected to deal with situations creatively and of course, where necessary, with appropriate urgency. Student nurses were not shielded from these realities. In fact they were all too often, early on in their training, parachuted (not literally) into situations which they were less than prepared for. Whether it was administering morphine to an evacuated patient who sometimes could go no further than the hospital grounds, or rescuing patients from their upturned beds following an attack on the hospital, student nurses, though terrified, invariably learned very quickly the art of judgement, self-possession and self-reliance. Alongside this, student nurses’ tendency towards instinctive caring and agency was tested in very dramatic ways.

Fortunately for me, my training was not the baptism of fire it was for my predecessors, but my mettle and predisposition for caring for the infirm, dejected, disadvantaged and wounded was nonetheless tried during the course of my training.  This was probably because what my tutor had said stayed with me throughout my time as a student nurse. It would later guide my practice in the first blush of my career as a registered nurse. It held me in good stead throughout these challenges. It did so because the command was a powerful device in conveying important principles of careful nursing.  Firstly, it reminded me how essential it was for a nurse to spread calm and not unease. Secondly, it prompted me to respond with appropriate measure to various situations which came my way. Calm and measure – the lessons drawn from nursing history and its teachers are not easily forgotten, and so it should be.


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