Address given at a Service to mark the life of Florence Nightingale

Jesus said, Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons.

Sister Frances Dominica ASSP DL

Wednesday, 9th May 2018 at 6.30 PM

Yesterday when I was driving I tuned in to Radio 4, as I often do. I was in time to hear the day’s excerpt from Book of the Week. I was captivated by the young nurse’s experience of caring for a boy of 14, seriously ill with cystic fibrosis. She spoke of being with him and his mother as he was wheeled to theatre where he was to undergo a heart lung transplant, promising she would be with him throughout. The boy did well and as he got stronger he became passionate about strawberry ice cream. Later, through the correct channels and with the help of his nurse, he wrote to the mother of the boy whose heart and lungs he had received. “Was your son passionate about strawberry ice cream?” he asked. And then, “I am really sorry he had to die so I could live.”

The book is entitled The Language of Kindness. It rang so many bells for me from years ago at Great Ormond Street where I started training almost 57 years ago. The language of kindness – surely that is at the very heart of nursing.

I was three when I told anyone who would listen that I was going to be a nurse. All my dolls and bears and rabbits were always sick – and they never got better or I would have been out of a job… So I was not a little delighted when I was thinking about this occasion to read that Florence Nightingale once said, “The best nurses have the essential qualifications before they go to school” – just as well as far as I was concerned because I did not gain many qualifications at school – for me school was marking time until I could do the thing I really wanted to do!

When I qualified from Great Ormond Street and the Middlesex Hospital, family and friends were shocked when I said I was going to join an Anglican religious community, All Saints Sisters of the Poor. In 1966 the new life I encountered included a lot of silence and solitude but I soon discovered that our community had an inspiring history. Founded in 1851 in central London it grew quickly, numbering almost 300 Sisters by the turn of the century. In those early years our Sisters were responsible for establishing the School of Nursing at University College Hospital. They worked such long hours that they were often unable to join the other Sisters for services in chapel so they had to learn the entire psalter by heart and recite parts of it on the way to the hospital! Some of our Sisters nursed with Florence Nightingale in the Franco-Prussian War, others nursed children with leprosy at a colony on Robben Island.

Much more recently, in 1982, we established Helen House in Oxford, the world’s first children’s hospice, now replicated on all continents and, some years later, Douglas House for young adults up to the age of 35.

As nurses you and I are privileged. So much has changed since Florence Nightingale established nursing as a profession.  In her Notes on Nursing she wrote:

It seems a commonly received idea among men and even among women themselves that it requires nothing but a disappointment in love, the want of an object, a general disgust, or incapacity for other things, to turn a woman into a good nurse.

This reminds one of the parish where a stupid old man was set to be schoolmaster because he was “past keeping the pigs”.

In those moments when we need encouragement we can turn again to this amazing woman: No matter how difficult the days may get, never forget the reason you became a nurse.

But the last word must go to a boy of ten who came to Helen House for respite care many years ago. I was quite often at the wrong end of his water pistol but one day he asked if we could have a serious talk.

“When I was young”, he said, “my Mum told me about my illness and things and she said that one day I might die. When she first told me I have to say I was a bit afraid. But now I have had time to think about it I am not afraid any more. I think of my body as my reflection, how you recognise me for who I am, but when I die I’ll leave my reflection behind and it will fade ‘cos I won’t need it any more. But the real me won’t die, the real me will go to a very special place.

“I think of God as my friend, always beside me when I need him most, and at the moment when I die I believe that Jesus will be there beside me, ready, waiting to take me to his Father in his heavenly kingdom. And Jesus will tell me to close my eyes and he will lead me forward and then he will say, ”Open!” and you open your eyes and you can’t find words to describe it, it is so beautiful. It will such a surprise, such a great surprise. And there is that banquet and I believe it will be God and me sitting side by side. There is so much to look forward to, living or dying.”

Then he remembered the water pistol…