Academic journal article Contemporary Nurse : a Journal for the Australian Nursing Profession

A Personal Essay on the Role of the Nurse

Academic journal article Contemporary Nurse : a Journal for the Australian Nursing Profession

A Personal Essay on the Role of the Nurse

Article excerpt


Arecent study by Field and Pearson (2010) in the International Journal of Nursing Practice discussed the portrayal of nurses who murder their patients. The discussion centred on why these murders create such shock and horror in the general public. To quote from the paper '... The thought that nurses can coldly premedi-tate, calculate and execute the murder of patients is more shocking and more disturbing for families, investigators, prosecutors and the public at large' (Field & Pearson, 2010, p. 305). Such sentiments are redolent of the reasons that most of the nurses who killed their patients in the Nazi 'euthanasia' programs were never punished - it was thought that nurses would never do those things (Benedict, O'Donnell, & Shields, 2009).

It makes one wonder what it is about the role of nurses that makes them seem to be, as Darbyshire (2010) suggests, either 'heroines, hookers or harridans'. Darbyshire discusses the stereotypes surrounding nursing, of 'angels', 'doctors' handmaidens', 'battleaxes', 'naughty nurses' and 'nymphomaniacs', and he posits that such stereotypes have a long history, with their genesis in Victorian times, and continued use in current media shows like ER, House, etcetera. The written history of nursing is replete with descriptions of the development and causes of these stereotypes.

The role of nurses as we know them today, [as opposed to the medieval male-dominated world of monasteries and monks] was first recognized in the 16th Century, at least in the English-speaking world. Boulton (2007) reports a widow, Ellen Wright, of St. Botolph Aldgate (London) who, from 1588-1599 took sick people and pregnant women into her house and cared for them. He describes parish nurses working in London in the early 1700s, who, for a living, took in sick paupers, and nursed them. These women sometimes had over 20 people in their care, and usually there was one nurse for every 10-15 patients in their establishments. Today, we are so influenced by the ubiquity of Florence Nightingale that we forget that nursing has been around for much longer than the 19th Century. Indeed, I would lay some blame for the misconceptions surrounding the role of the nurses today at the feet of Florence Nightingale, or at least the large public relations machine which operated around her, often to the detriment of her real achievements in the fields of epidemiology and statistics. Vera Brittain, a young woman who went to World War I as a voluntary aid detachment (VAD) nurse, condemned all that Nightingale had come to stand for. To quote:

... I thought then that the 'holiness' of the nursing profession is easily its worst handicap; a profession, it seems, has only to be called a 'vocation' for irresponsible authority to be left free to indulge in a type of exploitation which is not excused by its habitual camouflage as a 'discipline'. What is true - it has to be true - that most of the women who choose this harsh, exacting life are urged by semi-conscious idealism, but idealists, being eager and sensitive, are often more liable to nervous strain than the less altruistic who take care of themselves before they think of others. (Brittain, 1933, p. 454)

This was written in 1933, surely things have changed now?


History aids in contemplation of modern perplexities, and at present, there is much in the role of the nurse to perplex, even here in Australia. Australia has an advanced health care system. Its dichotomy of public and private services means that choice exists, with a concomitant ability to access the highest technology and expertise with ease and equity in both public and private systems (and with a sound safety net for the disadvantaged). Australian nursing, also, is advanced in practice, research and education. Australia is one of the few countries in the world where a degree is the basic qualification for registration, with postgraduate study required for specialization. …

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