Today is the feast day of Florence Nightingale. This was originally posted in March 2012 for Women’s History Month.
I often say that Brigid of Kildare was my first patron saint, and she is because I chose her as my patron saint after I knew what they were as an adult. But as a child I chose another woman. I would have never called her a patron saint: the religious environment I grew up in didn’t have those. But looking back now I realize that Florence Nightingale was my first patron saint. I found a biography of her in the school library when I was in grade school. I’m not sure how old I was. I think third or fourth grade. I fell in love with her. She immediately became a twin spirit. I read everything my public school library had then went to the public library. I was dismayed that most of the biographies there were for adults, and I tried to read them, but they were over my head.
Florence was a fighter. She didn’t settle for the life everyone else wanted her to have. She heard God’s voice, and she knew God had a calling on her life, but she had to wait many years to realize that calling (so did I). I admired the way she made her own decisions and her bravery in going to be a nurse during the Crimean War. I drug out our huge Atlas to find out where Crimea was then I had to find a history book to know why there was a war there. I read in awe of how she invented modern nursing and treated the soldiers as men and human beings and not “the hopeless brutes. You cannot expect anything from them” that one of the officers told her (James Kiefer). Realizing the men spent their pay on alcohol because there was nothing else for them to buy, she set up a writing room for them where they could write their families and send money home. The authorities at the hospital wouldn’t let her do it, so she appealed to Queen Victoria and got her writing room. British soldiers “sent home 71,000 pounds sterling in less than six months” (Kiefer).
Conditions in hospitals at the time were appalling, with sheets not being changed nor bandages being washed and used again. Florence earned the doctor’s trust and instituted new sanitation guidelines with regular changing of sheets, using new bandages, and making sure blanket’s were not rotting away in a storehouse when they were needed in the hospital. She also started sanitizing the equipment needed for operations and procedures.
When I was eight or nine years old, I wanted to be Florence Nightingale. I started checking out books on being a nurse. Not long into that reading spree my mother gently told me, “Shawna, you can’t stand the sight of blood, and nurses see a lot of blood everyday. I’m not sure nursing is right for you.” (She was right: to this day when I have a blood draw, I have to look away. No way I would’ve made it through nursing school). I was devastated. But like the typical eight or nine year old, I quickly found something else I wanted to be.
I hadn’t thought about Florence for years then I picked up Edith Deen’s Great Women of the Christian Faith, and there in its pages, I once again found my childhood heroine. And I found out my path had actually run pretty close to Florence’s. At the time I was in college preparing to be a pastor: a doctor of souls. A lot of the reasons Florence felt called to be a nurse, I felt called to be a pastor. I found out we were both 17 when we were called into Godde’s service, and that neither one of us was sure what that meant. I assumed I’d be a missionary because in the Southern Baptist Church that was the only ministry that was open to me as a woman.
Edith Deen writes:
Like Joan of Arc, she heard a voice outside herself when she was seventeen. She was sure that God had called her to His service, and she was filled with confidence and faith, relates Cecil Woodham-Smith, in her biography entitled Florence Nightingale. Florence felt that God spoke to her directly four times after this, and she gave the exact dates later in her life. By the time she was twenty-four, she knew that her destiny was to serve the sick and dying (p. 214).
Godde also spoke to me after the initial calling and my calling blossomed into pastoring, preaching, writing, and speaking. Florence’s call was to care for and heal bodies. My call is to take care and heal souls. Both our calls grew and changed over the years. Florence started out in hospitals in the poorer districts of London then she went on to Kaiserwerth Germany to study with the Institute of Protestant Deaconesses, who ran a hospital. After that she volunteered to nurse in the Crimean War.
In Crimea Florence’s work did not end with her shift. Her stamina was incredible, and she was known to be on her feet twenty hours a day.
The London Times reported: “When all the medical officers have retired for the night and silence and darkness have settled down upon those miles of of prostrate sick, she may be observed alone, with a little lamp in her hand, making her solitary rounds” (Deen, 217).
The Lady with the Lamp was her affectionate nickname from the soldiers who watched for her light and some would even kiss her shadow as she passed.
She was forced to return to England after she came down with hospital fever. She served in Crimea for two years. After her return to England she revolutionized the nursing profession with her Notes on Nursing, which became a classic guide. She was given 250,000 pounds, which she used to “found the Nightingale Home for Nurses at St. Thomas’s Hospital” (Deen, 217).
I’ve watched my own call grow and develop over the years taking me places I never thought I’d go either. I will never have the influence of Florence or make any groundbreaking work and revolutionize a vocation the way she did. But my sister still holds her light and beckons me on. And I still follow.
May 18 is Florence Nightingale’s feast day in The Episcopal Church and Anglican Communion. Here is the prayer for that day.
Life-giving God, who alone have power over life and death, over health and sickness: Give power, wisdom, and gentleness to those who follow the example of your servant Florence Nightingale, that they, bearing with them your Presence, may not only heal but pain and fear; through Jesus Christ, the healer of body and of soul, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Great Women of the Christian Faith by Edith Deen, (Uhrichsville, OH: Barbour and Company, Inc. 1959).