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The Nightingale Immersion Experience

July 12, 2010

Susan Hassmiller, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Senior Advisor for Nursing, is traveling through Europe on a tour developed in honor of the centennial of Florence Nightingale’s death. This is the second of two preliminary posts she gave us last week before taking to the skies; click here for the first. Starting later today (so check back this afternoon!) with a first post from London, Hassmiller will report on her trip, what she’s learning, and why Florence Nightingale is as relevant as ever to nurses’ work today. 


I’m still in immersion mode,
learning all I can about Florence Nightingale—the “Lady with the Lamp” (a name Wikipedia succinctly explains)—as I get ready for my trip. What have I learned so far? Well, I’m blown away.

Envisioning change. Although nursing was Nightingale’s “call from God” and she set her sights on giving full attention to every single patient under her watch, her more lofty work had everything to do with system change, quality improvement, and large-scale prevention efforts. She was one of just a few people in her day who seemed to connect proper sanitation, poverty, employment, respectful working conditions, and wages to overall health. She worked day and night, giving up a few marriage proposals along the way, to collect research and keep statistics on who was getting sick and why—and under what conditions—as well as the cost of it all to her country’s economy.  

Being a woman, and a nurse, was not an easy ticket. That hasn’t changed much, even today . . . but Ms. Nightingale used her wealth, intellect, perseverance, and influential (male) network of government officials and military officers to do what she felt needed to be done.She was the force and the intellect behind commissions to reform military hospital care that had a worldwide effect. She was called upon to serve as a consultant to the North on how to set up military hospitals at the beginning of the Civil War. She  wrote about and made lasting changes in sanitation laws, military hospital design, the moral treatment of soldiers and their families, health care quality, the field of statistics and, of course, nursing. 

All or nothing. She was hard on those entering the profession and went to great lengths to ensure that only the most qualified young women, of the highest moral character and intellect, would be admitted to her nursing school. She had little patience for those who could not or would not make every sacrifice possible. She expected nurses to choose, as she had, between marriage and a nursing career. She did not think that allegiances could be split. Her rigidity in training methods for young nurses, though, had everything to do with her focus on patients. Her goal was to give them full attention, with treatments backed by science and evidence, and to extend that same attention to their families. 

Fighter, icon. Florence Nightingale fought hard for what she believed would bring the ill and underserved, and those who fought for their country, better care. She caused tensions and made some enemies along the way, as you would expect from a social change agent who is way ahead of her time. But the soldiers who she cared for idolized her. Yes, she was called the Lady with the Lamp . . . but I’m realizing that her lamp is more like 1,000 stars that shine brightly and blaze paths for those who choose to follow her teachings. Stick with me for news along the way as I begin my Florence Nightingale study tour . . .

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One comment

  1. During our regular CCNA/RWJF conference call today -we took a moment to try and picture Sue on this pilgrimage. As Florence Nightingale wrote to students in 1900, “Always keep up the honour of this honourable profession”. Sue Hassmiller does that in so many ways and I anticipate that in another hundred years, nurses will want to follow Sue’s own footsteps that helped shape the nursing profession as experienced by future generations.

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