Whenever I am faced with the pressures of my nursing career, I find myself reflecting on my nursing heroes. Their memories come to mind and give me the strength and encouragement I need to face everyday challenges. My unsung heroes are far from hand maidens or shrinking violets. I wish to share their stories with you in hopes that you will have the fortitude you need for your next shift. I hope it may even inspire a few to consider nursing as a career. This is my tribute to a few who continue to inspire me.
A favorite is Mary Ann Bickerdyke (July 19, 1817-November 8, 1901). Born in Knox County, Ohio, she later moved to Galesburg, Illinois. Known as the “Cyclone in Calico,” she was the only woman allowed in General Sherman’s Civil War camps and, at times, cared for almost 2,000 men.
She was allowed in the hospital because she demanded to be. A surgeon informed her, “There is no room for you in this hospital.” She firmly replied, “I am staying and if you put me out one door I shall come in another. If you bar the door, I will come in a window. In fact, if anyone leaves, it will be you.” (Cosner, 1988).
In her 40s when the war broke out, “Mother Bickerdyke” was a large, heavy woman with “muscles of iron, nerves of finest steel” (Cosner, 1988). Like today’s nurse, she also possessed an uncanny ability to bypass bureaucracy, scrounge supplies and help run hospitals. She worked in a field hospital and on the first hospital boat. As chief of nursing under the command of General Ulysses S. Grant, no one and nothing stood in the way of her duties. Finding patients unfed and uncared for while the surgeon in charge was drunk, she shouted at him, “Here these men, anyone of them worth a thousand of you, are suffered to starve and die all because you want to be off upon a drunk. Pull off your shoulder straps, for you shall not stay in the Army a week longer.”
After his discharge, he appealed to General Sherman to be told, “Oh, it is Mother Bickerdyke? Then I can do nothing for you. She outranks me.”
When questioned about her authority, she would reply, “On the authority of Lord God Almighty, have you anything that outranks that?” (Cosner, 1988). She dealt with the theft of food by baking a pie with tartar emetic, leaving it on the table to “cool overnight”. Soon, the entire camp heard the moans and groans of the guilty men leading to their arrest. After the war, she became an attorney assisting with veteran’s benefits.
My Colleagues, My Heroes
Two other favorites of mine are nurses I have had the pleasure to call colleagues.
One was my mentor as a house supervisor. She once cared for a dying patient who wanted comfort measures only. The patient deteriorated with the physician en route minutes away to write the “Do not Resuscitate” order (this was before phone or fax orders were accepted). When the patient coded, she barred the door from the code team as the physician arrived to write the order, placing herself in liability to honor the patient’s dying wishes.
Another was an Army reserve nurse. When an unruly family member was causing a scene at the desk, she instructed them to return to the room where she would be happy to speak with them. The enraged family member physically attacked her. She immediately used her Army training and subdued the violent visitor. I was very proud of her and pleased administration backed her actions.
Consider the nurses who have worked before you and who are working around you. Who in your nursing career has inspired you? I hope you will take a moment to honor the nurses who’ve made a difference in your lives in some fitting way.
Cosner, S. (1988). War Nurses. New York: Walker.
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