Florence Nightingale called nursing “one of the Fine Arts” and described it in terms of artistic production: “Nursing is an art: and, if it is to be made an art, it requires an exclusive devotion, as hard a preparation, as any painter’s or sculptor’s work.” These two forms of visual art are an interesting choice. She could have compared nursing to farming, religious service, the care of animals, or even medicine, but she chose painting and sculpture, art forms that require inspiration and vision combined with a high degree of technical ability.
In speaking of devotion, Nightingale might have been echoing contemporary prescriptions that said nurses needed to be spinsters or ugly, but taken in context of her comments about painting and sculpture, I prefer a more human interpretation. To be a nurse, you have to care. You have to care about people not falling off chairs and hurting themselves, and you have to care about people’s desire to know the truth about their own disease. At times this caring will ask so much of you that being devoted to the job is the only thing that will enable you to keep doing it.
The skill set you need as a nurse will stretch from hands—literally used to hold someone in place—to heart—the patience to listen for the question behind the question, the courage to give an honest answer. It’s called nursing practice because it can make physical, mental, and emotional demands that no one feels prepared for when they first come onto the floor. The beginning has its share of oh-my-God moments, as in “Oh my God, his back split open,” and quite a few “What do I say now?” moments as well. Each patient comes to us as a blank canvas or a solid block of stone, and at first we will make only the simplest of brushstrokes, the most obvious chisels.
At some point, though, sooner than any of us would wish, our artistic mettle will be tested. A patient will be in great distress, and it will be the nurse’s job to help her. Colors and brush ends will fly, and metal will strike stone, chipping off chunks more or less artfully. In the end the product will not resemble the Mona Lisa or Rodin’s The Thinker; but a real person in less distress, physical or emotional, than she was before the nurse came into the room. My masterpieces are all internal: ease given to a suffering human heart.