Our Debt to Florence Nightingale

Florence_NightingaleIt’s likely that you’re thinking about medical issues more than you usually do–it’s hard not to. I think about friends and family who have what’s euphemistically called “underlying conditions” and the risks they face if they catch the coronavirus. I just heard the other day that certain blood types make you more susceptible to a serious case of the virus. Sigh. Sometimes it’s hard to stop your brain from wildly proliferating about the risks of going back to some sort of normal life. I was cheered to learn that this is the Year of the Nurse named in honor of the birth of Florence Nightingale, two hundred years ago. Nightingale professionalized the occupation of nursing and introduced many of the methods and ideas that we take for granted in hospital care today.

Whe We Do HarmEarlier this month, there was an article in LitHub about Nightingale by Dr. Danielle Ofri, who writes about the doctor-patient interaction. I read her excellent book What Doctors Feel: How Emotions Affect the Practice of Medicinewhen it came out in 2013. The LitHub article is adapted from her recent book When We Do Harm: A Doctor Confronts Medical Error. In the LitHub article, Ofri recounts how prescient Nightingale was in understanding that the way we treat patients can be beneficial or harmful.

Nightingale believed that cleanliness was paramount in treating patients. She was an advocate for “Hygiene” with a capital H much to the dismay of the medical profession. From the LitHub article: “Nightingale set rigorous standards for hygiene, wound care, food preparation, medical supplies, and patient triage. Over the course of the year 1855, the mortality rate in the hospital dropped sharply, from thirty-three to two percent.” In this Tempus Covidae we’re thinking about the same things that Florence Nightingale thought about. We disinfect everything we touch, people are wearing sterile gloves in the grocery store, we do our best to limit our contact with contagion, etc. While we’ve made so many advances in medicine, we’re still at the mercy of viruses.

It’s worth thinking about Florence Nightingale, the stickler for “Hygiene” at this particular time. I haven’t read a biography so I can’t recommend one, but her own volume, Notes on Nursing: What it is and What it is Not (1859) might be an interesting book to read.


One response to “Our Debt to Florence Nightingale

  1. Great to hear your voice again. Thinking about all this as I got my hair cut for the first time in 16 weeks. Germs, touching a foreign faucet, etc. Masks seem, at least to me, as the the least part of our “new” lives.

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