By TERRI SCHLICHENMEYER
She was one of the few people to watch you come into the world, red and squalling. Hers was one of the first touches you felt as she wrapped you in warm blankets. She helped you on your launch in life, and she was there during the voyage: when you broke your leg, cut your hand, hit your head, needed blood, needed surgery, needed stitches, needed reassurance.
And she, of course, might’ve been “he”.
In the book “Celebrating Nurses: A Visual History” by Dr. Christine Hallett, you’ll see how caring for patients has morphed from none to nun to nurse and beyond.
Long before there were hospitals, hospices, and HMOs, early patients were cared for by priests or shamans and, probably, by women who merely extended their talents as caretakers of children and the elderly. The best care, however, was likely off-limits to everyone but royalty.
By the Middle Ages, health care was easier to get, albeit mostly ineffective. Herbs, magic, and potions were still medicines of choice, ministered by “wise women” who were usually the only option for ailing rural patients. For rich Europeans, healers were often members of religious orders. Because of the latter, and because those men and women gained a reputation of holiness, it’s no surprise that early nurses were sometimes canonized as saints.
As the world’s population grew, the need for nurses increased. Formal training programs were instituted, and in the early 1800s, French-inspired “sisterhoods” were founded in America. Still, nursing in the 18th and early 19th centuries was often viewed as work for poor women and the less-than-genteel, but it was starting to gain recognition.
By the end of the Civil War, nursing was a respectable vocation but nurses definitely played second-fiddle to doctors. Hallett says that male physicians, perhaps fearing dwindling incomes, conspired to keep nurses in the dark. Science training was omitted from nursing schools, and nurses weren’t “allowed” to know what medicines they were dispensing.
But that, of course, has all changed. Just as Nightingale, Barton, and others envisioned, nurses have embraced larger roles in the care of patients than ever before. Even uniforms – once voluminous reminders of nuns – have become professional-but-comfortable unisex scrubs, coming full-circle as men, once again, take their places in nursing.
All of the above – and more, including mini-biographies, a lighthearted look at uniforms and caps, and nursing around the world – can be learned by reading “Celebrating Nurses”. But while I enjoyed author Christine Hallett’s narrative, that wasn’t my favorite part of this beautifully-presented book.
What appealed to me the most was the abundance of photographs.
Readers, especially nurses, will be delighted by pictures of nurses gathered around a “laboratory”. There are photos of hospital wards that will make you glad times have changed. There are snapshots of wartime nursing, aiding the poor, and equipment once used. And you simply can’t miss the portraits of nurses, past and present.
If you’re an RN, LPN, or have reason to thank one, grab “Celebrating Nurses”. For you, this is just what the nurse ordered.
Terri Schlichenmeyer is based in Wisconsin.