“There is a higher court than courts of justice and that is the court of conscience. It supercedes all other courts.” ~ Mahatma Gandhi.
I left home at the age of eighteen and a half, finished with high school, ready to enter the profession of nursing. The weird thing about growing up in a small town in rural Jamaica is that you are used to letting people know where you are going and when you’ll be back. Most of the time you needed your parents’ permission to go out anyway. I was fortunate to be the youngest of my family, by the time I hit my teens my parents were seasoned, or exhausted, and I was given a little more leeway than my siblings. One hard and fast rule was that we didn’t go to parties on a Sunday, and since Sunday started at 1201 am, if I went out on a Saturday night (and in Chapelton parties were the only place to go) I had to be home by midnight. What a drag.
So the hardest thing for me to get used to, once I moved to the UK, to a big city, was that when I locked the door behind me in the nurses’ residence, there was no one for me to tell where I was going, or when I’d be back. When you are raised in the household of a minister, it is more than just habit though, it is ingrained, a deep feeling of wrong and right. There was an awareness that your actions were being judged, even when there was no one around. My parents did not only follow their Christian values in the upbringing of their family, they also had a strong sense of duty, of the responsibility of being a good citizen, of obeying the laws of man. Last week I wrote about my brother learning to drive. He loved driving, and would beg my father to let him drive, long before he obtained his driver’s license. Sometimes we would visit friends whose houses were on a large piece of land so the driveway would be quite a distance from the main road. Andrew would ask if he could drive from the road to the house usually along a curving, paved, tree lined road with well-tended tropical gardens beyond. My father would still say no, even though the road was private property. My parents were law-abiding, tax-paying citizens.
By the time I finished nursing school and migrated to the US, I had managed to ignore most of the feelings of parental disapproval that I may have provoked. Once in the US I soon learned that a different set of values prevailed. From the heights of power to the man on the street, the law of the land appeared to be that so long as you did not get caught you could get away with murder. Nowadays, we have the omniscient cell phone video to thank for shining a light on many of the worst crimes.
It takes a lot of qualities to make a good nurse, and many of them start with the letter C. But I have always felt that conscience is one of the fundamental necessities. It is that strong sense of conscience that makes you gown up and mask up and walk into a patient’s room, even when you could be endangering your own life. It is that still small voice that will not let you turn your back on a human being in need even though it is long past your lunch time and you really, really need to use the bathroom.
2020 was designated the International year of the Nurse and Midwife. It is 200 years since the birth of Florence Nightingale, and so it seemed appropriate that this was the year to spend in appreciation of the profession. We have gone from having ‘Nurses’ Day’, celebrated in the US around the birthday of Florence (May 12th), to having a whole week of appreciation. Each year healthcare institutions try to find ways to show their appreciation, through free meals, gifts, flowers, posters everywhere. Some years they would be a hit, sometimes a miss. ‘Another lunch pack?’
There are times when words and gifts are inadequate to really demonstrate how much a person or a profession is appreciated. The expression ‘show me, don’t tell me’ comes to mind. Nurses have become used to big promises soon forgotten. They are used to hearing apologies and excuses for inadequate staffing, for overstretched working conditions, for unreasonable expectations. Even though the money has improved dramatically from 40 years ago, what value do you place on the person who is not only providing hands-on care, but is being with your loved ones in their final moments when you are unable to be there?
There is much to read about nowadays. We are all thirsty for more information about this virus that has put the nation (all except those essential workers) on a massive go slow. In social media theories abound, we all share the latest video on how to avoid or survive the dreaded virus. But what scares me most of all is the tendency to see conspiracies around every corner. Because we know of so many cases where profits have replaced conscience; where entrenched systems have created a steep gradient in availability of healthcare, even of health itself, there is deep suspicion even of legitimate science. I fear that even when there is a good vaccination available, many in the minority communities overwhelmingly affected by the virus will refuse it.
When healthcare is administered without a conscience all acts become suspect. We cannot blame those whose lives have been deemed disposable for rejecting that which may save them. How can we inoculate ourselves against bad information? The nation has lost faith in the institutions set up to protect them. Perhaps it is up to the Nurses (in this our year) to challenge the status quo, to create a new healthcare system, one which values health promotion over cures for diseases; one which continues Florence’s goal, to provide an environment which puts the patient in the best state for being healthy, through good nutrition, ventilation and hygiene.
On this Friday morning I honor all of the Nurses and Midwives worldwide, especially those who are in harms’ way. And for those who don’t know all that a nurse does on an average day, I hope you don’t have to get sick to find out! Have a wonderful weekend, Family!