President-Elect Biden stood somberly at the end of the Lincoln Memorial reflecting pool to present a beautiful and moving evening vigil to remember the 400,000 lives lost to the Covid-19 pandemic. Prior to his formal remarks he acknowledged that it was appropriate that a nurse, Lori Marie Key, sing the soaring hymn, “Amazing Grace,” to draw attention to the heroic work of nurses. Back in 2015, Biden’s son, Beau (age 46), lost his struggle against brain cancer. Although Biden has always carried the pain of that loss in his heart, he has never forgotten how his son’s nurses delivered such exceptional and compassionate care. On this solemn occasion, the night before his inauguration, Biden expressed his gratitude for the role of nurses, which he has done during many hospital tours: “If there are any angels in heaven, they are nurses.” And standing next to him was such an angel. In an interview with the New York Post, Key explained that she was singing for every nurse: “When I’m up there singing, I’m really singing on behalf of how every health care worker is feeling everywhere… this song is basically for everyone who went through something this year and still going through something now…. [The song] helps give you encouragement.”
Biden went on to deliver his formal remarks: “To heal, we must remember. It’s hard sometimes to remember, but that’s how we heal. It’s important to do that as a nation. That’s why we’re here today. Between sundown and dusk, let us shine the lights in the darkness along the sacred pool of reflection and remember all who we have lost.” And slowly the 400 lanterns flanking the reflecting pool lit up in succession, while all across the country, iconic buildings were lit up to remember the victims of the pandemic. What makes their loss more poignant is that many died alone, away from family and loved ones. However, some of these patients were fortunate to be surrounded by the last human beings they would ever see before they “slipped the surly bonds of earth” — exhausted but compassionate earthly angels dressed in blue scrubs, their tears obscured by partially fogged protective face shields.
The founder of modern nursing, Florence Nightingale (1820-1910), believed that nursing was the highest form of art. “Nursing is an art,” she wrote, “and if it is to be made an art, it requires an exclusive devotion, as hard a preparation, as any painter’s or sculptor’s work. For what is having to do with dead canvas or cold marble compared with having to do with the living body, the temple of God’s spirit? It is one of the Fine Arts: I had almost said the finest of Fine Arts.” But according to a study, 70% of nurses believe that nursing is not just a profession but a calling — defined as a deep desire to devote oneself to serving people according to the high values established by the medical profession. The researchers found that “[Nurses] who were committed to their profession and experienced their job as a calling, had a good knowledge about the ill feeling and maladjustment of their patients and were also good sources of support for their patients. They understood the importance of family ties and offered support to their patients’ families. They were aware of the needs of dying patients and their concern with spiritual questions, and satisfied these needs well.” A tall order, unless you are an angel.
Let us close with one of the most eloquent tributes to nurses. We travel back to March 3, 2018, to the Paul VI Audience Hall in Vatican City where Pope Francis, the first Jesuit pope, delivered an address to the members of the Italian Federation of the Boards of Nursing Professions: “This professionalism, however, manifests itself not only in the technical sphere, but also and perhaps even more so in the sphere of human relationships. Being in contact with physicians and family members, in addition to the sick, you become, in hospitals, in healthcare facilities and in homes, the crossroads of a thousand relationships, which require attention, competence and compassion. And it is precisely in this synthesis of technical abilities and human sensitivity that the value of your work is fully revealed. Taking care of women and men, of children and elderly, in every phase of their life, from birth to death, you are tasked with continuous listening, aimed at understanding what the needs of that patient are, in the phase that he or she is experiencing. Before the uniqueness of each situation, indeed, it is never enough to follow a protocol, but a constant — and tiresome! — effort of discernment and attention to the individual person is required. All this makes your profession a veritable mission, and makes you ‘experts in humanity,’ called to carry out an irreplaceable undertaking of humanization in a distracted society which too often leaves the weakest people at the margins, taking interest only in those who ‘count,’ or responding to criteria of efficiency or gain.”
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For further reading: Famous Misquotations: Blood, Sweat, and Tears
Famous Misquotations: A Civilization is Measured by How It Treats Its Weakest Members
Famous Misquotations: The Two Most Important Days in Your Life
Famous Misquotations: The Triumph of Evil is That Good Men Do Nothing
Famous Phrases You Have Been Misquoting
For further reading: As Miss Nightingale said: Florence Nightingale Through Her Sayings: A Victorian Perspective, Florence Nightingale, edited by M. E. Baly, Scutari, 1991