On International Nurses Day, I have been thinking about what nursing means in our troubled world. And how nurses through the ages and across the planet have devoted their lives to helping others.
It was lovely for the Mary Seacole Trust to be invited by one of our trustees Karen Bonner to hold a stall at St Thomas’ Hospital as part of the Guys and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust’s International Nurses Day celebration. Our display was right by Mary’s beautiful statue. We sold books and badges and signed people up to our mailing list. But most of all we talked with nurses and members of the public about the legacy Mary Seacole has left us. Despite all the challenges she faced, she refused to give up on her mission to help the sick and dying, including soldiers in the Crimea fighting a world war. She knew that nursing, in the 1850s not yet a recognised, respected profession, is so much more than delivering medicine or other treatments. It is about being with people in life and also in death. It is about combining compassion with practicality. And it is about speaking up when something is wrong and fighting for the rights of those at the bottom of the pile.
Mary continues to be a role model for millions of us. As a middle-aged woman of colour, she knew discrimination and hardship. Mary’s mother was a free-woman in around 1805 when Mary was born, having previously been a slave. Mary experienced racism when she came to the UK, as well as many other challenges and setbacks. But through her courage, tenacity and entrepreneurship, she gained recognition and gratitude not just from those she nursed, but also the British government and media, and even Queen Victoria herself. And yet Mary died in penury. It is only recently that her legacy has begun to be recognised.
Some of the skills and knowledge I acquired as a nurse from 1973 – 2000 remain with me, although I would need considerable retraining if I wanted a job in nursing today. The same would apply to Mary. But the core qualities and values needed to be a nurse have not changed. The ability to listen without judging. To see the person not just their disability or disease. To stand up for those who cannot stand up for themselves. Never to give up on anyone. And to seek out and build on the shared humanity that brings us together rather than the differences that can drive us apart.
Were she alive today, on International Nurses Day 2017, I wonder what Mary Seacole would do? And as I look at her statue as she strides calmly but resolutely towards the Houses of Parliament, I can almost hear her telling me and others who have chosen to become nurses never to give up on our fellow humans. Because we are all part of one human race.