Friday, June 16, 2017

Damn, Girl- Florence Nightingale, Lady With the Lamp

You've probably heard of Florence Nightingale, at least in passing, she basically invented modern nursing after all. But, heavens above, what an achievement that is. Nightingale was one of the first to insist on cleanliness and sterilization, meticulous record keeping, and giving patients nutritious food. During the Crimean War she cut the mortality rate of her hospital by 2/3rds, an amazing achievement, especially considering that the hospital was literally situated on top of a cesspool.

Image result for florence nightingaleFlorence was born into an aristocratic family, and at a young age showed a penchant for taking care of those in need. Deeply religious, in her teens Florence told her parents that God had shown her her destiny, and that her destiny was to be a nurse, and to help the sick (she's kinda like the medical Joan of Arc). Her parents were less than thrilled about this. They expected their daughter to marry an aristocrat and carry on the proud family tradition of being wealthy and marrying well, not work at what was considered a menial task. Nevertheless, Florence persisted, and she was able to receive nurses training.

After completing her training, Florence worked for some time in local British hospitals. Then the Crimean War broke out. Soldiers were dying en masse, and they were mostly dying from poor living and hospital conditions. Florence needed to do something about that. Luckily, she was friends with Sidney Herbert, the secretary of state for war. In a case of great minds thinking alike, she sent him a letter requesting to be sent to Crimea with a group of female nurses, and he sent her a letter asking the exact same thing. On November 5, 1854 Florence arrived in Scutari, Turkey.

Florence likened the Barrack Hospital in Scutari to the Kingdom of Hell. I mentioned before that the hospital was located on a cesspool. The cesspool poisoned the water and air. Soldiers were poorly attended, lying in their own urine and feces, and the hospital was severely overcrowded. Upon arriving in her living quarters, Florence found the body of a dead Russian soldier abandoned to the flies. The hospital was filthy, and reeked of death. This was, as one might imagine, completely unacceptable to Florence, and so she set to work.

Florence attacked the hospital mercilessly. She enlisted some of the more hearty patients to scrub the hospital from top to bottom, and recruited the soldier's wives to wash the clothing and linens the hospital needed to function. She insisted that medical instruments be sterilized, and that patients' wounds be cleaned, as well as the general bathing of the patient.

While all that may seem like a no-brainer to us today, it was not the case in Florence's time. From the 1500's to the mid 1800's hospitals were more a place to die than a place to get well. Filthy conditions were normal. Germs had yet to be discovered, so wounds went uncleaned, and medical personnel didn't wash their hands. Florence changed that.

But not only did Florence insist on cleanliness and sanitation, she also saw to it that soldiers received assistance in writing home to their families, established a library to stimulate minds, and insisted on around the clock care. She herself was known for wandering through the wards of sick at night to check on her patients, it was for this that she received the epithet 'Lady with the lamp'.

Eventually, the Crimean War came to end, and Florence returned to England. But she didn't leave empty handed. She contracted brucellosis, or Crimean Fever, a disease that would leave her home bound and bed ridden for much of the rest of her life.

Florence came back home to find herself a national hero, a development which both baffled and unnerved her. This fame was, however, to allow her to further her work in revolutionizing both nursing and hospital administration. She was granted a tete-a-tete with Queen Victoria, a conversation that resulted in the entire army health system being overhauled, as well as the position of minister of health being created. She received several hundreds of pounds, all of which she put into creating her own nursing school in St. Thomas Hospital.

Once back in England, she still had to dodge her family's demands that she marry Stubborn as ever, Florence refused on the grounds that she was deathly ill. Sub-sequentially, two female relatives, first an aunt and then a cousin moved in with Florence to care for her. Florence established a firm attachment with both of these women, in one letter saying that she and her aunt were 'like two lovers'.

Related imageNow, if while reading this you have a little voice in your head that's screaming 'GAY', that voice is completely justified in that argument. Not only did Florence describe her relationship with her aunt as being like two lovers, but she also spoke of a female cousin, saying "I have never loved but one person with a passion in my life, and that was her." Florence never married, and rebuffed marriage proposal from no less than four men. She seemed to have preferred the company of women over all, and was also known to have said, 'I have lived and slept in the same beds as English Countesses, and Prussian farm women. No woman has excited passions among women more than I have.' And while we will never be sure* if Florence was a bi or homosexual, it isn't an unfair assumption to make.

During her years after Crimea Florence not only established her own nursing school, but she also published the definitive guide to nursing, and provided valued statistics and mathematical formulas for calculating and prediction mortality rates. She remained an expert on public health, and was frequently consulted by the British government for ways to improve healthcare.

There's no arguing it, Florence revolutionized healthcare. She established procedures for modern nursing, and she elevated a once despised profession to one of the most valued professions today. She is honored to this day as being a true visionary and pioneer.

*Unless, of course, you manage to contact and interview her ghost. If you do manage such a feat, please contact me. I have much interest in gaining details of the past from those beyond the grave.

University of Alabama at Birmingham
Encyclopedia Britannica

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