Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The Spirit of Nursing

Nursing is a high calling, one that brings us to the very threshold of heaven. It's a work that is as much a benefit and blessing to nurses as it is to the recipients of their care.

How so? What is it that drives us to be nurses? 

Crazy hours; tiring, sometimes even exhausting work (and that not only physically, but mentally and emotionally exhausting as well); a huge amount of responsibility; innumerable multi-faceted and multi-layered demands that stretch the concept of multi-tasking to the extremes of human endurance.

So why do we do it?

Well, starting with the obvious, there’s the paycheck, and it's true that compensation for nurses has significantly improved over the last generation. No one’s going to get rich being a nurse, but certainly you can make a comfortable enough living, and job security is virtually guaranteed for the foreseeable future.

O.K., there’s the paycheck, but is that enough? Well, there’s also a prestige attached to nursing and a real opportunity for professional advancement. Survey after survey shows that the American people trust nurses more than any other profession, and for good reason: The kind of people who make it in nursing are the kind of people you want in your corner no matter what the crisis or problem. 

And as a career, the sky’s the limit for nurses. We all start off at the bedside, but after that, we can go in countless directions: Research, management, entrepreneurship, a host of specialty areas, advance practice nursing – even education! With all that opportunity, there really shouldn’t be such a thing as a bored nurse!

So, a paycheck and professional excellence – that’s a pretty good combination for most career paths.  But for the Christian nurse, that’s only the start, for the heart of Christian nursing – the soul of Christian nursing, as it were – is an encounter with Christ Himself.

Jesus Himself refers to this encounter in His parable of the sheep and the goats: 
The King will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ 
Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink?  And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee, or naked and clothe thee?  And when did we see thee sick or in prison and visit thee?’  And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.’
And so, the young girl dying from cancer; the elderly man in the nursing home with no family; the parents of the child in the ICU; the frightened woman facing a major surgery – are not all of these Christ? When we care for them, aren’t we ministering to the Lord Himself?  Aren’t we on Holy Ground?

I want to share with you my nursing hero. Most of us who choose nursing as a profession are inspired by at least one nurse-hero in our lives – maybe a mom or an aunt who was a nurse; maybe a friend, or maybe the example of a compassionate nurse who cared for us or our loved ones. Although the example of many nurses influenced my decision to go into nursing, the one that stands out is a woman I never met – a woman who died almost 80 years ago: Rose Hawthorne.

Rose was the daughter of writer Nathaniel Hawthorne and grew up in a privileged home. Following a very profound conversion later in life, she determined to demonstrate her love for Christ through some form of service – but not just any service would do. For Rose, it had to be the hardest work, the least desirable; a work that was commensurate with the depth of her new Christian commitment.

At the time, cancer was a disease not very well understood, and those afflicted with it were shunned – much as lepers in biblical times and throughout history. People whose cancer didn’t respond to available treatments were considered hopeless, and they were often relegated to die lonely, miserable deaths.

So, Rose took a nursing course, went to the poorest section of New York City, and began taking in and caring for the indigent who were dying from cancer. In effect, she started a kind of hospice in her own apartment.

And what was this courageous woman’s philosophy? Why did she do this thing? Here are her own words:
I have set out to love everyone. I do very little, and am as stupid as I can be about it. But even this imperfect effort is so beneficent in being according to God’s plan, and, in so far as it goes, free from selfishness and sloth, that each person coming into contact with it is refreshed. I myself tremble to see the power, even in me, of a little of the right spirit. It is as if God brushed me aside each moment saying, ‘I am here.’
This, for me, was electric. Here was something I could dedicate myself to! Here was a work – an employment – that could be more than just a job; it was a work that could make me a direct instrument of the Lord’s love and mercy every day!

So, my friends, congratulations! You have reached a significant milestone on your road to a nursing career – a career that is both financially and professionally rewarding. 

But allow me to remind you – and those of your family and friends that are here gathered with you to celebrate your accomplishment – that your chosen career path is also one that will afford you many, many encounters with Our Lord Jesus in the face of the sick and the suffering. Watch for those encounters; do not neglect them; humbly embrace them and take full advantage of them. I assure you, they will be your greatest, your richest rewards.

This essay was adapted from an address to first-year nursing students at their Nursing Dedication ceremony, Bethel College, Indiana (15 January 2005). A version also appeared on Catholic Exchange.