I was struck by the presence of 2 nurses in the annual New York Times Magazine issue about people who died this year. Kathryn Barnard was an early nurse scientist who studied how mothers and babies interact, “the natural habitat of babies.” She was recognized as a pioneer in Nursing Science studying the importance of touch. But perhaps even more intriguing was the presence of Augusta Chiwy, a black nurse from Belgium, who volunteered at the military hospitals during the Battle of the Bulge, in the list. Her heroism was only recognized much later and when she finally talked about her experiences she was quoted as saying “I was just a nurse. I did what I had to do.” Intriguing….
This ties in with a conversation I had with a colleague recently who was at the 5 Year meeting on the impact of the IOM Future of Nursing meeting. She quoted a scientist (non-nurse) at the meeting who insisted that we (nurses) had to do a better job of clarifying what we do. This is in stark contrast to Augusta Chiwy’s heroism…”I did what I had to do” or Kathryn Barnard’s study of touch in infants.
It is so frustratingly difficult to articulate to core meaning of nursing. Even though I have been a nurse practitioner for 40 years, I spent enough time at the bedside to be present at more than one death…sitting and holding someone’s hand while they made that most permanent of transitions; or helping their family to do the same. Ken Wilber and others (but I give Ken credit as he wrote an amazing article introducing the concept over 20 years ago) called this “midwifing” death. How do we quantify a concept like that? And all nurse practitioners, early on in their career, learn the importance of their relationship with their patients. I believe that many times over the years I was the only person in a patient’s day-to-day life who really “saw” them, and gave them hugs! Do we have an evidence base for the therapeutic value of “hugs”?
These examples make a lot of sense to those of us who have done it, but how do you explain this to others? This is probably what Kathryn Barnard and other early nurse scientists tried so hard to do..to demonstrate what we do, even though the acts are relational, such as “being present” or more pragmatically, “doing for others what they would do for themselves if they could” (thank you, Dorothea Orem).
As important as evidence based practice and clarifying what we do is, let’s take a note from the New York Times Magazine, and honor nurses who do “what they have to do” every day for people in their darkest, deepest, and loneliest hours.