Observing death has this slow-motion effect to it. Perhaps it’s a feeling of numbness that makes minutes feel like hours, movements appear like they lag, moments happen too late. It’s the colour draining ever so slightly that you only notice it once they’re white as a sheet. This numbness is easy to come by: it’s clinical white walls, the smell of bleach, the constant hum and beep of technology sustaining life. After a while, you know the hospital wards like the back of your hands, the same way you know the other patient’s names, the same way the kiosk lady knows how you like your coffee. Watch any medical drama and you get this sense of fast, impending doom – one minute you’re waiting for the handsome doctor to finally profess his love for his female colleague when the moment is ruined by a perfectly timed emergency. The patient is stablised, the couple embrace, and then the credits roll – all is resolved.
The real world is a lot different: it’s less flashy, less gritty. While death is certainly imminent, it’s not swift or pretty. Rather, most of the time, it’s painful and grotesque. Watching a loved one fade away into a shell of their former selves is something you cannot un-see, and it’s hard to keep a memory of them before alive in you mind. Yet in the midst of all this horror, one develops an uncharted appreciation for the forgotten nurse. While doctors get the glory, the truth is that the health sector would crumble without the angels of the ward. Often, the greatest gift they give is not medical-related – rather, it’s their ability to make even the sickest of the sick feel okay – maybe laugh or smile – even if it’s just for a split second.
“It was the nurse who first practiced gerontology and palliative care, and it was the nurse, who, on the frontlines was stitching cuts and caring for the wounded. Nurses are the backdrops to the family experience: hope and fear, joy and suffering.”
If you ask a child today who they look up to, chances are they’ll say their parents, or the latest Marvel superhero to make it to the big screen. If you were to ask that same question decades ago, you’d have heard something more promising – a firefighter, a cop, and, of course, a nurse. Today’s society has an absence of this idolisation: nurses in media and popular culture are doctor’s playthings or short aprons on Halloween. In reality, they are both women and men who contain everything a child (and adult) should aspire to be in character – compassionate, patient, and skilled – and they are a breed that have pioneered the merge of medicine’s brutal nature with patient ethics. It was the nurse who first practiced gerontology and palliative care, and it was the nurse, who, on the frontlines was stitching cuts and caring for the wounded. Nurses are the backdrops to the family experience: hope and fear, joy and suffering.
As Florence Nightingale said in 1859, “No man, not even a doctor, ever gives any other definition of what a nurse should be than this – ‘devoted and obedient.’ This definition would do just as well for a porter. It might even do for a horse. It would not do for a policeman.” The emergence of modern nursing (thanks to Nightingale) has produced more than just medical services. The disdain for nurses throughout history has a direct correlation with the injustices of women. While Nightingale often rejected the idea of female sympathy, her profession ultimately paved the way for women to enter the medical field – a territory once only explored explicitly by males.
The contribution to medicine by females in the 20th century has produced some of the biggest scientific breakthroughs known throughout history. In 1974, biologist Gail Martin discovered how to keep stem cells alive in a petri dish and in 1981 she found a way to isolate embryonic stem cells. In 1983, Francoise Barre-Sinoussi discovered that the cause of AIDS was HIV, and Mary-Claire King identified that the BRCA1 gene is responsible for breast cancer, as well as that humans and chimpanzees share 99% of the same DNA. Such feats would have been impossible without the foundations of nursing, and thus, the foundations of women in medicine.
“Australia could soon see a reduction in it’s trained medical professionals in years to come – ultimately putting strain on adequate health services for the people of this nation.”
And yet, in Australia, the future for upcoming female (and male) medical advancements dwindles at the prospect of cuts to tertiary education. According to the Sydney Morning Herald, Universities Australia has urged Malcolm Turnbull and his coalition government to abandon the 20% funding cut (otherwise $3.2 billion) to universities. Originally proposed in the Abbott government’s “toxic” 2014 budget, the notion of institution privatisation (let alone cuts) could mean that the cost of degrees would skyrocket. Nobody wants a HECS debt in the hundreds of thousands, and further cuts to education could mean that those completing already-pricey degrees in science and medicine would have to already be able to afford it. Without sufficient grants and scholarships in place, Australia could soon see a reduction in it’s trained medical professionals in years to come – ultimately putting strain on adequate health services for the people of this nation.
Nurses, alongside doctors, are too precious to Australia – we cannot afford to lose them, and we simply cannot take them for granted. Nurses provide the type of services that enables Australians to progress through the cycle of life as comfortable as possible – whether it’s bringing life into the world, or bidding it goodbye, nurses are there every step of the way. Without them, where would we be?