When I was a mere nine years old, I underwent a tonsillectomy, a minor operation that surprisingly enough, in those days, required general anesthesia. My mother spent as much time as she could with me in the hospital, but my constant companions otherwise were the military hospital’s nurses. I might not have been a teenager, but I was still, mysteriously enough, old enough to develop crushes on many of the nurses who did the rounds and attended to my many needs. They wore impossibly starchy uniforms, as befitting those serving in the armed forces; they were prim and proper; they were firm, kind and efficient. I wasn’t sorry to say goodbye to the hospital ward but I did feel more than just the passing pang on waving goodbye to my merry band of temperature-taking, brow-stroking, bedsheet-smoothing caretakers.
Some thirty-five years on, nurses don’t cease to impress. My daughter’s entry into this world was most proximally brought about by the deft handiwork of an obstetric surgeon, but it was considerably and significantly facilitated by a hardworking and attentive group of nurses. From initial admission to prep work to recovery, a nurse was always there, providing expert, experienced care, offering words of advice, caution, and sometimes gentle reprimand too.
My wife and I spent two nights in a maternity ward after the birth of our daughter, and from the time we entered its rooms to the time we left, we were in the care of its nursing staff. I described my anticipation of my firstborn as a mixture of excitement and terror, and the most active factor in the mitigation of that terror was the maternity ward nurse. I always expected fatherhood to involve a great deal of on the job training; I didn’t realize that my first and most visibly accomplished teachers would be a group of nurses.
They knew how to handle newborns with just the right mix of firmness and gentleness; they were champion swaddlers and they knew how to teach its moves to an utter novice like me (I still haven’t mastered the really, really snug wrap, but I’m getting there, keeping their finished product as an aspirational goal); they knew how to change diapers with ease and minimal fuss (and they expertly shepherded me through my first diaper change disaster too); they were, in all the important ways, my hand-holders through my first trepidatious steps through the valley of fathering.
After we left the hospital to return home (but possibly even before) I wondered about how many families the experienced nurses had seen entering their wards with their newborns in tow, how many lives they had kicked off, how many anxious parents’ queries they had answered, how many anxieties they had smoothed over, how many bumblers they had turned into quasi-competents, able to approach the task of rearing a child with just a little confidence.
The world of medicine has often not taken adequate care of these indispensable components of the medical system; doctors have often not acknowledged how their work would be impossible without their assistance; and more than one reformer of the medical system has sought to underwrite their vision via a diminution of their role. They are often invisible, unacknowledged, and unappreciated. Be nice to one the next time you see one or need one.