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Joseph Cramer, M.D.: Nurses deserve being celebrated with cheers and tears

Published: Monday, May 12 2014 4:15 p.m. MDT

Nurses can be celebrated with cheers, but they can also be celebrated with tears.

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We just finished celebrating National Nurses Week yesterday. It ended with the 194th birthday of Florence Nightingale, who was born on May 12, 1820.

Unfortunately, the “we” who celebrate were not everyone on earth like it should have been. Nurses make the world go round. They comfort the sick, nurture the infirm and bless the dying. They are called angels of mercy. Nightingale, the primogenitor of all modern nurses, is known affectionately as the “Lady of the Lamp.” She came by this name as she made her nursing rounds to the wounded and dying young men by the dim light of an oil lamp.

In 1854, England and France allied with the Ottoman Turks against Imperial Russia in the Crimean War. This war, like any war with sabers, guns and cannons, was deadly, messing and mutilating. This was the conflict described in "The Charge of the Light Brigade" by Alfred, Lord Tennyson:

"Half a league, half a league,

Half a league onward,

All in the valley of Death

Rode the six hundred.

'Forward, the Light Brigade!

'Charge for the guns!' he said:

Into the valley of Death

Rode the six hundred.

… Cannon to right of them,

Cannon to left of them,

Cannon in front of them

Volley'd and thunder'd;

Storm'd at with shot and shell,

Boldly they rode and well,

Into the jaws of Death,

Into the mouth of Hell

Rode the six hundred.

… Then they rode back, but not

Not the six hundred."

Florence arrived to the horror and squalor of a primitive military hospital. She brought order, rudimentary sanitation and bandaging skills along with the other women who were part of her force of nurses. More important in the days before antibiotics, anesthesia or MASH units, she brought compassion.

The skills nurses have grown logarithmically since those dark days of war on the peninsula jutting out into the Black Sea. What has stayed the same has been the compassion inherent in their calling.

More and more men are entering nursing, just as more women are becoming physicians. The traditional gender barriers are breaking down, which has enriched both professions.

As a doctor, I am fortunate beyond words to associate daily with the healers in nursing. This feeling of fortune is enhanced when disease and disorders become personal.

The wife of my firstborn recently gave birth to her second set of twins. This time, it was a boy and a girl, or more precisely, a girl and a boy two minutes apart. The boy was the troublemaker at first, needing a chest tube for a collapsed and infected lung. He received wonderful care at the university NICU. Meanwhile, his older sister went home, only to have to return to the hospital 48 hours after her brother arrived in the house 17 days later.

This time, she was in the care of superb nurses at the children’s hospital. Her little heart had too many openings in its walls. These anomalies permitted excessive blood flow to her lungs, throwing her into congestive heart failure.

The attempt to grow the defects closed failed. Therefore, she had to undergo heart surgery called pulmonary artery banding. Thanks to the doctors and the nurses, there is every reason to believe she will do well.

Experiencing the illness of a loved one, even if they are only four weeks old, is not the same as talking to parents or teaching residents and medical students.

I have discovered that I can say the words of medicine ASD, VSD, Lasix, Digoxin and pulmonary vascular bed hypertension without a hint of sentiment. There is no distress when I see her breathe fast and hard. Being in the hospital overnight with her as her grandfather, and not as her pediatrician, was also easy on the nerves. The angels of silence came in to comfort her with every fuss or bother.

It is, however, when describing the goodness of the nurses who care for her that the emotions erupt. Nurses can be celebrated with cheers, but they can also be celebrated with tears.

Joseph Cramer, M.D., is a board-certified pediatrician, fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics, practicing physician for 30 years and a hospitalist at Primary Children's Hospital and the University of Utah. Email: jgcramermd@yahoo.com

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