July 3rd, 2008 | The Blog
The Fourth of July holds special meaning for me. As the country takes the time to celebrate independence, I hold court with the past. I send my quiet thanks and respect to the nurses who have gone before me, paving the way for my profession, both in the Army and in the civilian worlds. My thoughts are with the nurses who have traveled far from home, during eras in which the expectation was to stay put and tend to the family when the men went off to fight. The nurses who served on the front lines, doing their best to care for the horribly wounded, and ill, with little to defend themselves.
Each nurse taught the legacy of Florence Nightingale, considered everywhere to be the mother of nursing. Her observations and practices saved thousands of soldiers during the Crimean War. After fighting the social sigma against caring for the sick, she became a British heroine after the war. She took advantage of this and pushed for nurses to be formally trained, and was instrumental in overhauling the British military medical system.
Nurses have been entwined with every conflict the United States has been involved in.
Although not formally trained in nursing, but rather as a physician, Dr. Mary Walker served as a nurse during the Civil War when she was not allowed to work as a surgeon due to her sex. This woman definitely bucked the tide and in doing so, saved countless lives, as well as became the only woman to have earned our nation’s highest military honor, the Congressional Medal of Honor.
What greater lineage could a profession ask for?
I could feel that pride and connection as I spent the day, alone, walking through Arlington National Cemetery last spring. I visited the graves of very famous historical figures: President Kennedy, Mrs. Lincoln, generals, admirals, and the like. I took the time to walk to the grave of Surgeon Anita Newcomb McGee who organized nurses during the Spanish-American War. She then became the founder of the Army Nurse Corps in 1900. Dr. McGee also happens to be a woman with whom I share a last name.
I walked past the newer sections of the cemetery in which those who have given the ultimate sacrifice in Iraq and Afghanistan are laid to rest. The fresh graves brought instantaneous tears. These were the Soldiers, Sailors and Marines I trained to care for. A nurse or medic laid hands on them. I hope that they were able to give a last moment of comfort when nothing else could be done.
My unplanned path took me behind the Tomb of the Unknowns. A place that I believe my soul needed to be. As I had done all day, I read the grave markers, this time in a quiet section surrounded by trees on a graceful hill. As I read the inscriptions of names and dates, my hand slowly covered my mouth. My breath stopped and I said quietly to no one, “They are nurses. They are all nurses.”
I looked up and was graced by the gaze of a granite statue of a nurse in uniform. The plaque reads:
Time stood still as I walked among those who served before me. Who gave comfort, dressed wounds and risked their lives to do so. Those nurses who went against convention to serve their country in foreign lands, or to do so when women were expected to stay home.
Today, we become nurses under very different circumstances. Nursing is sometimes considered a second-class profession hearkening back to a time in which the only choices for women were to become secretaries, teachers or nurses. Men continue to fight the beliefs and idea that nursing is the work of women. I submit to you that these ideas are far from correct.
By learning about our past, we will continue to carry the torch of pride and pass it to the next generation. Spending time at Arlington National Cemetery walking through the “Nurses Section” and visiting the Women’s Memorial makes the sacrifices real. This is also true of the Vietnam Women’s Memorial Statue nestled between the Korean War Veterans Memorial and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
It isn’t necessary to travel to learn about the history of the nursing profession and the impact nurses have had in securing our freedom and independence. The stories of these brave men and women are captured on the pages of books. “And if I Perish” was written about nurses on the frontlines of WWII. “A Piece of My Heart” is a collection of the personal stories of nurses who served in Vietnam. I encourage you to spend some time reading these, or others. In doing so, you may also find ways to get some of the “Greatest Generation” that you care for to share their wartime experiences.
Nurses continue to save lives on the front lines. They also continue to give their lives for our freedom. I give my deepest gratitude to you who have served. Moreover, to those who have died for my freedom, caring for those who also served, I am honored to wear the same uniform. I only hope that if called upon to go, I will make you proud.
I encourage you to take the time to post the stories of your loved ones who have served, or the time you have spent serving this amazing country. The NursingVoices Forum would be a great place to do so. The memory will continue to live as long as we continue to remember.
As you enjoy your long weekend, fireworks and barbecues this Fourth of July, find a Veteran and thank them. If they happen to be a Nurse Veteran—-thank them twice: once for serving our country, and once for continuing the history of our profession.
For other suggested reading, please visit my blog at www.crzegrl.net and read the post 4th of July Reading: Remembering Nurses Who Served. All photos shared on this post credited to me (and my friend).