Many of those who have paced the wards of hospitals before you have forged unique paths in nursing history.

What lessons can you take from their journeys and their experiences?

Here are five lessons from five nursing greats.
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1.Strive for change when change is warranted. (Florence Nightingale)
Born to an aristocratic family, Florence Nightingale could have lived a life of luxury. To the dismay of her parents, she rejected many wealthy suitors as a young woman and she decided to follow what she considered her divine calling: nursing. For the British Army, this was a good thing because when Nightingale went to Turkey in the mid-1850s to nurse British soldiers who lay injured in an army hospital there, she was appalled by the unsanitary conditions and she started to rally for change.

The military did not take kindly to her “criticism” of their facilities and procedures and ignored her demands at first. Using a contact at The Times in London, Nightingale got an editor on board to back her cause, and when her concerns were publicized and subsequently received some attention from the government, she was given permission to make changes to improve sanitation in the army hospital.

This reduced the death rate of soldiers significantly. For the rest of her nursing career, Nightingale continued to focus on hospital reforms which improved conditions for patients. For her, the idea of challenging the system in the best interest of your patients was a good thing.

2.It’s never too late to do something great. (Clara Barton)
If you know your trivia, you will know that Clara Barton was technically not a nurse. She knew a great deal about nursing and spent much of her life caring for wounded soldiers, but she never trained as a nurse—she was a qualified teacher. However, it’s acceptable to say that she was a nursing great even though not a qualified one!

A remarkable woman, Barton devoted many years to nursing on American battlefields and became known by soldiers as the “Angel of the Battlefield.” Retirement wasn’t a concept that Barton ever embraced. In 1881, at the age of 60 years old, when most people that age are considering retirement options, she founded the American Red Cross and led the organization for 23 years, until the age of 83. Even then, she wasn’t ready to stop. She went on to found the National First Aid Association of America and remained its honorary president for five years. She died a few years later at the age of 91.

Here was someone who continued to do amazing things, and did not settle for literally as long as she could. Her drive may have been a factor in her longevity, and that should make all of us rethink retirement and what it will be for us.

3.There’s a whole world—beyond those hospital walls—that needs nursing care. (Mary Breckinridge)
Mary Breckinridge’s lost both of her children at a very young age, and because of her own experience, Breckinridge decided to make it her life’s work to improve the health of women and children in rural regions of the United States—regions in which families had limited or no access to healthcare. So, at the age of 29, shortly after her husband and children had all passed away, she essentially started her life over and became a nurse.

In 1925, she founded the Frontier Nursing Service to provide care to the isolated mountainous region of eastern Kentucky. Over the next several decades, this outreach model of nursing was adopted by the rest of the country and the rest of world, leading to the development of in-home nursing services, district nursing service centers and district hospitals, all geared to providing nursing services to people residing far from major cities and towns. Breckinridge was also a leader in bringing midwifery services to women who couldn’t travel to major centers for maternity care and delivery.

Breckinridge was not only a major influence behind bringing the concept of “public health nursing” into the limelight, but she also changed the lives of many and opened up whole new nursing career options for nurses everywhere. If you’re looking for a change, explore the world beyond the facility or institution you’re currently working in.

4.Nothing should stop you from doing what you’re passionate about. (Mary Seacole)
We’d all like to think that discrimination no longer exists in modern society, but there are still incidents that rear their nasty heads. But it should not influence your life for the worse.

For Jamaican-born Mary Seacole, who lived in the 1800s, faced the racial discrimination that threatened to hold her back. Even Florence Nightingale herself passed Seacole over and refused to include her in the group of nurses she took to the Crimea to care for soldiers injured in the Crimean War. But Seacole borrowed money and went there on her own anyway, ignoring the racial barriers in place to keep her from achieving her dream. She spent most of her life living on the edge of poverty; fundraising efforts were what helped her to travel to various parts of the world throughout her life, providing nursing care to the sick.

5.Provide care for the whole person, not just the disease or illness. (Virginia Avenel Henderson)
Credited with the development of Nursing theory that promoted a profoundly humanitarian perspective, Virginia Avenel Henderson started out as a public health nurse and then became a full-time nursing instructor in Virginia.

She is often quoted for her saying: “The unique function of the nurse is to assist the individual, sick or well, in the performance of those activities contributing to health or its recovery (or to peaceful death) that he would perform unaided if he had the necessary strength, will or knowledge. And to do this in such a way as to help him gain independence as rapidly as possible.”

Rather than concentrating on nursing techniques or procedures, she focused on the fundamental role of the nurse in relation to patients and felt that psychiatric nursing was a critical component of nursing training. She was one of the earliest proponents of the idea that nursing should care for all aspects of the individual—a concept that permeates modern healthcare. An idea that should be central to all patient care. You are treating a whole person, not just an organ or a limb.

Wise words from these nursing greats. Do you have any wisdom from a nursing great that has touched your life? Share in the comments below.

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