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The voice Florence Nightingale gave nursing helped shape the profession

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There aren’t many moments in nursing when you have a chance to pause, take a deep breath and feel the pride of being a nurse. 

I would guess that the annual service to commemorate the life of Florence Nightingale in Westminster Abbey is one of those times; it quite visibly makes the nurses present feel proud to have their registration. And it is a ceremony that gives registrants time to reflect on what it means and its relevance in today’s society where nursing means so much more and does so much more than when Florence was practising 170 years ago.

The formality of the fascinator-headed VIPs being escorted to their seats, the Chelsea Pensioners forming a scarlet-coated river to the high altar and the matrons-in-chief of each of Her Majesty’s three armed forces marching down the aisle creates a spectacle. And it’s a spectacle that pays tribute to the nurses of the past, present and future.

In that ceremony, everyone seems to remember what is often forgotten – that nursing deserves respect, and to be made centre-stage. All eyes focus on nursing in those moments – and those present pay tribute to the profession’s ability to transform lives.

Sister Francisca Dominica gave the address this year, and discussed the case of a boy with cystic fibrosis, who had been cared for by a nurse as he prepared to receive a heart and lung transplant that saved his life. She’d heard about it in a book discussed on Radio 4 the day before. The book was called The Language of Kindness.

Her point was that nurses need to speak the language of kindness, and she said that Florence Nightingale believed that the best nurses have the essential qualifications they need before they go to school.

“It is something that must be taught, and taught well”

I am not sure if that is still true today. Nursing does take the skill of being able to communicate with patients and relatives, and requires an emotional intelligence and compassion that is not possessed by everyone.

However, the clinical skill, the knowledge and the expertise that allows nurses to diagnose, prescribe and treat, observe critically ill patients and lead their care and manage their condition is not something you are born with. It is something that must be taught, and taught well.

“Nursing is not just a list of basic tasks to be performed with kindness”

When that lamp in the Florence Nightingale ceremony, this year carried by Joanna Poole, is passed between the three Florence Nightingale scholars at the sacrarium it gives everyone present a time to think about the knowledge and the training that goes into nursing and is passed on from generation to generation.

Nursing is not just a list of basic tasks to be performed with kindness – it is a highly skilled job that takes training and comprehensive and intensive education and learning – and those tasks often referred to as ‘basic’ are anything but. They are fundamental elements of nursing.

But, as Sister Frances reminded us at the ceremony on Wednesday night, there is one thing that unites all nurses – and that doesn’t come from lecture halls or books. She urged all the nurses present to remember Florence’s words – that nurses should always remember the reason why they became a nurse.

Those reasons probably haven’t changed much since Florence’s day but the care provided by today’s nurses has transformed beyond recognition.

We should be grateful to those who lit the lamps for present-day nurses but mindful that they were illuminating the path to a future – which looks very different to the nursing profession Florence viewed from behind her flickering candle.

But we wouldn’t be where we are without her and others like her, who tried to articulate and speak up for the profession. She might be remembered for her lamp, but the powerful voice she gave nursing was equally important in shaping the profession.

So, I hope you are all in fine voice when you pay tribute to Florence and wish her many happy returns tomorrow. Happy Birthday Florence Nightingale.

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