Sick Nurses

V0026904 Florence Nightingale. Photograph by Millbourn.
Creative Commons. Photograph by Millbourn. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk

Within the profession of nursing, we have a long and distinguished line of sick nurses who write. There was, of course, the mother of all sick nurses, Florence Nightingale, who, after the Crimean War, took to her bed with a mysterious illness that lasted for the last thirty years of her life. It was during this time that she wrote prolifically–letters and missives to the War Office, health care and social reform reports, and her now famous book Notes on Nursing.

Was her illness neurasthenia (nervous exhaustion, an actual medical diagnosis until the 1930s)? Was it a clever ploy to draw sympathy and support for her zealous cause of reforming nursing, hospitals–indeed, all of health care? Was it a clever ploy to have more protected time for writing and reflecting on the state of the world in need of her reform? Was it–as was taught to nursing students as late as the 1970s–the effects of tertiary syphilis? Was it–as current medical historian Philip A. Mackowiak postulates–a combination of bipolar disorder, PTSD from the horrors of the war, ‘Crimean fever’/brucellosis contracted from contaminated milk while in Turkey–and finally, the most likely cause of her death at age 91, Alzheimer’s Disease? (From his book, Diagnosing Giants: Solving the Medical Mysteries of Thirteen Patients Who Changed the WorldOxford UP, 2013.)

As Lytton Strachey puts it in his wonderfully intelligent short biography of Florence Nightingale in Eminent Victorians (Bloomsbury Press, 1918): “Her illness, whatever it may have been, was certainly not inconvenient. (…)  Lying on her sofa in the little upper room in South Street, she combined the intense vitality of a dominating woman of the world with the mysterious and romantic quality of a myth.”

Lady with the Lamp. Ministering angel. Pious Christian woman relieving suffering in the world. Nursing as a religious calling. These are the nursing myths we still live with. The nursing myths we as nurses–and especially as nurse writers–still perpetuate.

That’s what I kept thinking today as I read nurse and poet Cortney Davis‘ new book When the Nurse Becomes a Patient: A Story in Words and Images (The Kent State UP, 2015). Her book is part of the ‘Literature and Medicine’ series that includes the wonderful short story collection What’s Left Out by physician writer Jay Baruch. (Baruch’s book also happens to have one of my favorite book cover designs–check it out here.)

Cortney Davis is a seasoned nurse practitioner and a talented poet. I especially like her poem “What the Nurse Likes” included in the now almost classic book, Between the Heartbeats: Poetry and Prose by Nurses (edited by Davis and Judy Schaefer, U of Iowa Press, 1995). But over the past decade or so, Davis’ work has become stridently religious (Catholic) and proselytizing (anti-abortion among other matters). The fact that her latest book was published by a reputable (and secular) university press, and has just received the Book of the Year Award (for the category ‘Public Interest and Creative Works) by the American Journal of Nursing combined to make me look forward to reading the book.

When the Nurse Becomes a Patient tells the story–through pictures and words–of her experience with life-threatening complications of what was supposed to be routine day surgery in 2013. She had an extended hospital stay and then convalesce at home. Davis, a life-long writer, found that writing had ‘left her’ but that she was able to paint images of her illness experience.

The print version is a children’s picture book size and the printing quality of Davis’ twelve paintings depicting her illness is quite good. Favoring Davis’ poetry over her prose, I was disappointed to find that it was plain prose descriptions that accompanied each full-page image of the corresponding painting. Two of the prose/painting combinations, “On a Scale of One to Ten” and “My Husband Cares for Me Tenderly” are both quite powerful and effective at evoking important aspects of her individual-yet-universal illness experience. But most all of the remaining ten prose/paintings were over-the-top religious, what with Dark Nights of the Soul (parts one a two no less), last rites (with a priest figure), and and “Angel Band” with–yes–nurses as angels and the figure of a nun in full habit by the patient’s bedside. And, of course, there was the requisite redemptive suffering bit in “I Offer My Suffering.”

Davis, like everyone else, is free to have and write about their own personal religious beliefs. People who are ill are typically driven to face existential crises, which can lead them to deepen (or abandon) a personal faith. But books like this make me despair of nursing ever breaking free of its overly-pious Victorian roots. It’s something that I suspect even Florence Nightingale herself (pre-cognitive decline) would have wanted for nurses and for the profession of nursing. We are not angels and suffering is not redemptive.

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