A new biography of Florence Nightingale is reported as portraying her as “not so saintly”, on the grounds that she didn’t do much sitting by bedsides proffering personal care, rather she excelled as an administrator. Apparently revolutionising the care of the wounded and started a whole profession of disciplined medical care that could be reproduced en masse to improve the survival rates of people post surgery and post infection doesn’t qualify as “saintly”: oh no, only giving men her direct, full, attention by sitting by to wipe a fevered brow would do that.
I don’t know how much of this is the author’s take, and how much is just newspaper spin, but this is what they quote the author as actually saying:
The book’s author, Mark Bostridge, says Nightingale’s success at improving survival rates of injured soldiers was largely down to her executive skills at running hospitals rather than her nursing skills.
If this really a surprise to anybody? Everything I’ve read about Nightingale has stressed her administrative skills and her ability to negotiate the necessary politics in order to get funding, staff and premises. The whole “Lady With The Lamp” legend was because she wandered the wards at night checking how things were running, which the soldiers found reassuring: I’ve never heard much at all that reported her actually by soldier’s bedsides. The idea that she was mostly concerned with whether the nurses were carousing with wounded soldiers may strike us as a prurient intrusion now, but she was acutely aware that if her hospitals could be painted as houses of ill repute then the various people whose political noses she had put out of joint would be only too happy to shut her “experiment” down.
The AAP report makes much of letters from her family that carp about her not being what her public fame describes: right, families never fail to perceive what someone makes of themselves after years away from them, and view it through the filter of old resentments/condescensions, do they?
It’s an enduring stereotype, the saintly nurse by the bedside. It’s certainly been reported as a major source of current patient dissatisfaction with degreed nurses – the idea that the nurses are too busy with the technical and administrative side of ward nursing to sit and listen to them and watch them for the beads of sweat that need wiping from the brow. It’s a very gendered stereotype, don’t you think? The idea that “proper” personal care involves hovering, waiting for any chance to be of aid, rather than having responsibilities elsewhere that also need addressing.
Of course the hospital experience can be very alienating and lonely: the way that today’s nursing care simply does not allow the nurses the time for chit-chat emphasises the impersonality of the experience, and people respond negatively. I note that they tend to blame the nurses personally though, instead of blaming the ethos that personal interaction with patients is not an aspect of hospital care that ought to be allowed time in the schedule, an ethos based purely on the bean-counting approach to medical care. I bet most patients also notice it more when male nurses take a moment to chit-chat, perceiving that as the nurse making a special effort, yet generally just expect the female nurses to chit-chat and resenting it when that’s cut short to get on with other work, perceiving that as the nurse not caring. I wonder if there’s been any studies done.